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MTA Chaplain Soothes Subway Operators in Tragedies

NY Daily News

When there’s trouble on the tracks, transit workers turn to police, firefighters, paramedics — and The Rabbi. There’s no need for his full name. Anyone who has operated a train, welded rails or directed traffic from a radio tower in the last three decades probably knows Rabbi Harry Berkowitz.

The 65-year-old has been a subway chaplain for 34 years. He started ministering to the men and women of the transit police force, whose trust he earned by spending midnight shifts going on patrol with them in stations and on trains.

For the past two decades, Berkowitz has been head chaplain for NYC Transit, leading a God squad of ministers who provide emotional and spiritual support to transit workers during trying times.

“Within 15 minutes of a traumatic event, they call me,” Berkowitz said last week after visiting a motorman in a Manhattan hospital.

The motorman was taken to an emergency room for trauma after a “12-9” — subway code for when a train hits someone. The motorman was entering the 42nd St. subway complex when the man jumped from the platform.

End of story for the jumper. The beginning of a psychological struggle for the motorman.

If the crew is still on the scene, Berkowitz will find a quiet place to sit and talk. Usually, that’s an empty car on the train, away from the first responders — and the deceased.

“Sometimes they can’t even talk because they’re shaking so hard, they’re shaking like a leaf, because of what happened,” the rabbi said.

“It’s tremendous shock. You can imagine. The train operator is going about his business, coming into the station, and someone jumps. It’s a very traumatic thing.”

If the transit worker asks to pray, then they pray. Primarily, the rabbi stresses to transit workers that there was nothing they could have done to prevent the tragedy. It was beyond their control.

“Sometimes, I don’t even talk about the incident, if they are not ready,” the rabbi said. “I start talking about family, other train operators, anything but that subject matter, just to calm them down a bit, just to get their mind away from it. I try to divert them, give them a sense of calmness and establish a relationship, a trust.”

Track tragedies — both fatalities and injuries — aren’t the only calls that come into the chaplain’s office, but they are the vast majority.

Berkowitz estimates that he’s responded to some 1,600 12-9 calls over the decades. If he doesn’t go, one of his volunteer clergy is sent. A transit chaplain — there are 85 — is strategically located within minutes of every station.

The chaplains include Catholic priests, Baptist ministers, Muslim imams and nondenominational members of the clergy.

“You name it, we have it,” he said.

19 Comments

  • 1. R' SHLOMO IN ERETZ YISROEL wrote:

    More than thirty years ago R’ Harry Berkowitz lived on my block, 46th Street between 15th & 16th Aveune. Together with his elderly father 7 younger brother.

    A nice fellow and great Rabbi / Chaplain. He takes his job serious 24/7 and is devoted to all NYC transit workers regardless of race ! You should continue as long as the good Lord gives you.

  • 2. Chesed Parking wrote:

    Rabbi Berkowitz is also the Rov of a Shul in Queens close to JFK and lets people use the Shul parking lot at no cost.

  • 4. ve wrote:

    This is the shuttle train from Times Square to Grand
    Central Station. It is a prime spot for advertising.
    I don’t take it regularly, but the advertisers are constantly changing.

  • 7. Bus Operator James Higgins wrote:

    The Rabbi is By far the most love and respected Man in the MTA :)

  • 8. Freddy Mack wrote:

    I have the Honor of Knowing Rabbi Berkowitz. He is a Wonderful Man of God. I met him when He first started to be there for The Transit Police. If a cop got hurt and had to go to the Hospital, Rabbi Berkowitz would be at the Hospital before the bosses got there. I got to know him and love him. He is a very caring person. When I retired in 1989, he came to my retirement party and when he walked in some when yelled “Freddy does really have a Rabbi” Cop talk. My Friend Be Blessed. You have been a Blessing to many a Cop.

  • 9. the Klammer wrote:

    “The Rabbi” Would come to the command at all hours of the night just to see how everyone was doing. A great man doing a great deed ! One of the Best !

  • 10. The "Mantaman" wrote:

    Dedicated man of God, None finer, proud to have had him as my friend….

  • 11. Jay Oher wrote:

    I met Rabbi Berkowitz back in the day when both he and were much younger. I was a NYC Transit Cop and he was the spiritual adviser to the Gonen Society of the Transit PD. He is devoted to his mission and should be respected for his unyielding commitment. Stay well Harry.

  • 12. Barry K wrote:

    As a retired member of the NYC Transit Police and their Jewish Line Organization, I can attest to the strength and compassion Rabbi Berkowitz showed ALL members of the Dept. He welcomes you with open arms and heart, and was always quick on his feet and mouth. He visited with us often and with over 4000 members of the department I found it amazing he always remembered my name when he talked with me.

    I consider this mench to be a great man and friend, even though I haven’t seen him in almost 20 years.

  • 13. Bob Marks wrote:

    Very nice guy. Visited me about 31 years ago when I was injured in the line of duty with the NYC Transit Police and was in Bellevue Hospital for 9 days.

  • 14. Charlie Moran wrote:

    I’m a former Transit Police Lieutenant. Rabbi Berkowitz patrolled the subways looking to minister to the cops on patrol. One would see the Rabbi at all hours and in the most dangerous areas. He would help the cops in any way he could. Probably the most beloved Transit Cop of all time.

  • 16. Clarence Haynes wrote:

    Great Man of GOD. I had the fine task of being the first officer to be his personal driver.

  • 17. Q wrote:

    Z was the man in black for the men and woman in Blue. Always a gentlemen and always available. TPD was lucky to have him around. Thank you Rabbi Berkowitz.

  • 18. Frank F wrote:

    In the early 90s with the TP police, I had an unexpected hospital admission requiring surgery. Rabbi Berkowitz came that same day and comforted my wife & family during this difficult time. Thank you again.

  • 19. Harry Hassler wrote:

    I have known Rabbi Berkowitz for over 35 years. First as a member of the Transit Police, and now as a volunteer chaplain serving under him. I cannot recall a more kind and compassionate man than this man. You can tell a lot about a man by the way he treats those who can do nothing for him. His greatest sermons are not what he says, but what he does He has blessed the lifes of many!

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