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Midnight Rider

Barbara Bensoussan

Rabbi Harry Berkowitz went from riding shotgun with transit police to serving as chaplain for the MTA

Wednesday, August 09, 2017

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ON THE RAILS “Today the MTA has 70,000 employees plus their families. It includes the MTA Police Department, the Long Island Railroad, the Staten Island Railway, Metro-North Railroad, the Bridge and Tunnel Authority (including their police force), the MTA headquarters, the New York City Transit subways and buses, and MTA Bus. Today, I have more than 70 volunteer chaplains working with me, everywhere from New York to New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and Connecticut, in a program I built from scratch” (Photos: Amir Levy)

R abbi Harry Tzvi Berkovitz wears his hat like a Stetson, the wide brim shading his eyes. Tall with a trimmed silver beard and slightly gravelly voice, he wouldn’t seem out of place in a Western movie, were he to exchange his black coat for a denim shirt and chaps. But Rabbi Berkowitz earned his sheriff’s star as a midnight cowboy, riding the New York City subway rails in the wee hours of the morning with the New York City Transit Police as a volunteer chaplain. There, he learned the myriad challenges of working for New York’s Metropolitan Transit Authority, the agency that runs the trains and buses in New York City. After many years of volunteer service, he was appointed an official chaplain for the Transit Police, and today is involved with all the MTA agencies, overseeing a staff of 70 volunteer chaplains who assist employees and their families in times of crisis and worry.

We meet Rabbi Berkowitz on the heels of a chaplains’ gathering about prayer, hosted in the New York City Transit Museum in downtown Brooklyn. Despite my many years in New York, I’d never been to the Transit Museum, which is accessed by descending a flight of outdoor stairs, originally the entrance to the Court Street Shuttle subway station. Inside, the station has been restored to its original grandeur, the tiled walls and concrete ceilings looking as pristine as they did in 1919, when the station opened. There are rows of old turnstiles, displays of subway tokens, and posters showing scenes of MTA history.

Berkowitz has to be both a strong father figure and a comforting mother figure as he deals with employees, managers, unions, and chiefs. He deals not only with on-the-job incidents, but traumas for the families of employees

A second staircase takes you down to an old subway platform with trains at rest on either side: one is from 1904, the very first subway wagon, and the other is from 1931. Their interiors sport ads for Lucky Strike cigarettes, Levy’s Jewish Rye, even Goldenberg’s peanut chews, an innocent contrast to today’s ads for personal injury lawyers, Botox doctors, takeout apps, and “if you see something, say something.”

The chaplains from the prayer meeting, men and women of a variety of backgrounds, are amicably taking their leave. One of them, a round-faced Hispanic man in a mustache and clerical collar, stops to tell me, “Rabbi Berkowitz is the best! When I was ready to retire from the MTA, he encouraged me to become a chaplain — and I did.”

Others stop by as well to greet “the Rabbi,” as they call him, with warm regards and obvious camaraderie.

“We’re like a family,” the Rabbi says. “There’s no other way to put it.”

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Berkowitz’s job requires him to deal with a wide variety of people, but perhaps that’s natural enough for a man who was himself an immigrant to New York some 60 years ago. His Czechoslovakian-born parents, from the towns of Kason and Zarich, survived the war and attempted to immigrate to Eretz Yisrael. Instead, “thanks to the British,” Berkowitz was born in a DP camp on Cyprus.

“In a tent,” he clarifies. “I was one of 2,000 babies born on the island.”

The family eventually did make it to Israel, and Berkowitz spent the first ten years of his life there. But since most of the family had settled in New York after the Holocaust, his parents opted to join them. The Hebrew-speaking, ten-year-old Tzvi was enrolled in first grade at the now-defunct Yeshiva of Brighton Beach, and the family settled in Sheepshead Bay.

The language barrier didn’t keep him down for long; he quickly mastered English and was soon moved up to the appropriate grade.

“I was always very independent, very adventurous,” he says. “As a kid, I began working as a delivery boy on a bike, for a cousin’s butcher store. Later I became a junior congregation leader.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 672)

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