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Celebrating a community leader: Hamden rabbi marks silver jubilee

Rabbi Herbert N. Brockman was apparently meant to settle in the New Haven area one way or another.
More than 40 years ago, the Youngstown, Ohio native was accepted to the psychology program at the Yale School of Medicine during his senior year at Ohio University. A month or so before graduation, he changed course and decided instead on rabbinical school. He was ordained in 1970 at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, the seventh generation of his family to enter the rabbinate. Sixteen years later, he would be invited to lead Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, and he would accept.

Rabbi Herbert N. Brockman

This weekend, the synagogue and the community celebrate  Brockman’s 25th anniversary.
Mishkan Israel is Brockman’s third pulpit. Newly ordained, he first served a 1,700-family congregation in Baltimore as assistant rabbi, while completing his PhD at the Ecumenical Institute of St. Mary’s Seminary & University. When the senior rabbi died suddenly three months later, Brockman and a fellow young rabbi were asked to share the position. He stayed for nearly a decade, before accepting a teaching job at Muhlenberg College in Allentown, Pa., where he led Congregation Keneseth Israel. He also taught at the Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, and worked with the Evangelical Lutheran Church on creating its study guide on Lutheran-Jewish relations.
In 1986, Rabbi Robert E. Goldburg was retiring from the Mishkan Israel pulpit. Brockman jumped at the chance to interview for the position.
“It was bashert,” he says. “When the opportunity opened up, I thought maybe I was supposed to be in New Haven.”
Mishkan Israel has been known for its engagement in the larger community since its founding in 1840. Goldburg and the congregation had long engaged in peace work and tikkun olam. In 1961, Martin Luther King, Jr. spoke at the dedication of the congregation’s new building in New Haven. Goldburg joined King in Alabama on the 1965 march from Selma to Montgomery.
“Mishkan Israel reflected an interesting mix of Yiddishkeit and progressive thinking and I hoped to learn from Rabbi Goldburg and his congregants, and to be a partner in their unique legacy.”
Brockman was raised in an Orthodox home, the son of Rabbi Harold Brockman, who was ordained in his native Riga, Latvia, and lived on a kibbutz in Palestine in the ’20s.
“My father always wanted an American ordination,” Brockman says, and he finally received the smicha in his 50s, from Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik. The senior Brockman served as an Orthodox rabbi in Youngstown, a diverse community of some 7,000 Jews. Brockman was also the kosher butcher and the mohel – and was best friends with the Catholic bishop.
“My family had a larger sense that we lived in a time and place that afforded the opportunity to expand our vision and work together with others, despite our differences, not to try to change those differences,” Brockman says. “My father rejoiced in his Judaism and in the freedom of this country and he wanted to celebrate them both.”
Brockman was raised in what he describes as “a very Zionist home,” which served as the meeting-place of the religious Mizrachi Zionist movement in 1947 and 1948.
So it was an especially fitting match when the rabbi came to Mishkan Israel, a congregation he describes as embodying the “old definition of ‘chalutz,’ Israeli pioneer: working to build a better society by day, reading Kierkegaard at night. I consider the congregation mishpacha,” he says.
Brockman, 67, and his congregants are involved in many interfaith and tikkun olam activities. Mishkan Israel is a member of Abraham’s Tent, an annual winter program of Interfaith Cooperative Ministries that shelters homeless men for a week at a time in greater New Haven houses of worship. The congregation sponsored seven Jewish immigrant families from the Former Soviet Union in the ’90s (and Jews fleeing Czarist Russia in the 1880s). It sponsored a family of Muslim-Bosnian refugees in the mid-’90s following the breakup of Yugoslavia.
“I’ve always been interested in getting modern Jews, including the Orthodox, to study and know their tradition,” the rabbi says. To that end, he came up with a creative and tangible way to introduce his congregation to Mishnah, 21 years ago. Mishkan Israel established the Peah Agricultural Project, a small farm on the synagogue property that provides thousands of pounds of vegetables every summer for local soup kitchens. Members studied Mishna Peah, which outlines Jewish agricultural laws, and discussed the mitzvah of feeding the poor.
“The idea is to understand that we’re not just doing it because we’re nice people, but because we’re Jews,” Brockman says. “Leaving the crops in the corners of one’s field for the needy is a mitzvah. We read it on Yom Kippur so it must be important, and 21 years later, we’re still doing it.”
Brockman is also a William Sloan Coffin-Joan Forsberg Fellow in Urban Theology at Yale Divinity School (YDS). He is a lecturer at YDS, teaching two courses for the Office of Supervised Ministries. In 2001, he was on sabbatical at Gregorian University at the Vatican. He serves on the board of the Jewish Community Relations Council, the Hartford Seminary and St. Raphael’s Foundation. He is also co-president of the Interfaith Cooperative Ministries in New Haven.
“Rabbi Brockman is a unique human being and especially a unique rabbi,” says former Mishkan Israel president Bobbi Friedman of North Haven. “His outreach to the interfaith community is extraordinary, and at the same time he remains absolutely true to the very core of Judaism and his rabbinical duties. There has never been an instant where I do not feel that his responsibility as a rabbi and his place as a learned Jew in the world have not been foremost. He imparts that mission both to his congregation and to the larger community, and with an ease that is as natural to him as anything else might be.”
“Rabbi Brockman has managed to shepherd a congregation that comes from very liberal political leanings and, at the same time, made those with different sensibilities feel included,” Friedman says. “He is able to deal with diversity and doesn’t cut anyone off.”
In his role as educator in the larger community, Brockman has brought clergy-members of various faiths to Mishkan Israel to preach and conduct interfaith dialogs, Friedman says. Many of those colleagues will take part in the anniversary festivities.
“Rabbi Brockman has followed in, and enhanced, the great tradition established by his predecessor, Rabbi Goldburg – of tolerance, social activism, interfaith understanding and tikkun olam,” says event co-chair Beth Heller. “He has been the leader among Jewish clergy in the New Haven area, and indeed in Connecticut, in teaching the lessons of tolerance and peace to his congregation, and to his fellow citizens. He has been an inspirational teacher, and a spiritual and moral guide to all who have had the good fortune to know him, to pray with him, and to work with him. My co-chair, Merle Berke-Schlessel, and I are proud and delighted to have worked on the ‘Silver Salute’ to Rabbi Brockman, out of our love and respect for him, and for the many years of service that he has given to our community.”
Congregation Mishkan Israel celebrates Rabbi Herbert N. Brockman’s 25th anniversary on Friday, May 13, 7:30 p.m. with an Interfaith service; and on Saturday, May 14, 7:30 p.m. with an evening tribute featuring Havdallah, a “roast,” entertainment, dancing, and refreshments.
For information call (203) 288-3877 or email cmihamden@cmihamden.org

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