HAMDEN – The sun could not have been shining more brightly on Father’s Day last Sunday. But for the hundreds of mourners filing into the chapel of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden on June 19 for the funeral of Army Pfc. Eric Soufrine the day was sadly overcast.
Soufrine, 20, was killed in the line of duty Tuesday, when his Humvee hit an explosive device in Afghanistan. A 2009 graduate of Amity Regional High School, the Woodbridge native was expected home from his first tour of duty in just another week. Instead, a slew of dignitaries including Governor Dannel Malloy, Senator Richard Blumenthal and Congresswoman Rosa DeLauro joined others on Sunday in honoring the fallen soldier, who was buried in Mishkan Israel Cemetery in New Haven with full military honors.
“Eric was a normal little boy, this cute little boy who was full of life and probably didn’t like coming to Sunday school, like everybody else,” says Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel, where the Soufrine family are members. “Seven years ago, almost to the day, I was standing with him on the bimah during his bar mitzvah and I put my hands on his shoulders to recite the Birkat Kohanim [priestly blessing].”
Brockman describes Eric as a neighborhood kid who enjoyed hunting and fishing and had a lot of friends. “He was a typical adolescent, a regular kid, and that’s how we define heroes,” he says, “normal people who sometimes step up and do extraordinary things.”
Soufrine had been presented with the Soldier of the Month Award by his unit and was slated to receive the Army Achievement Medal before he was killed. He was also awarded a dozen medals, some posthumously, including the Bronze Star, Purple Heart, Army Good Conduct, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal and Combat Action Badge.
After Brockman consulted with Eric’s parents, Michael and Donna of Woodbridge, he put out an email calling for congregants to watch over Soufrine until the funeral. “Within two hours, I had some 40 people signed up and we were getting calls all the next day,” the rabbi says. When congregant Ben Sklaver of Woodbridge was killed in action in October 2009, congregants did the same, sitting two-hour shifts and reading Psalms.
At the June 19 funeral, Eric’s coffin, draped with the American flag, was escorted into the synagogue by an honor guard. After the traditional Jewish funeral service ended with the recitation of “El Maley Rachamim,” the soldiers returned and escorted the coffin to the cemetery. Following the interment and recitation of Kaddish, the Guard fired a 21-gun salute, played “Taps,” and presented the folded flag to Soufrine’s parents, along with several medals.
Now Brockman counts two fallen soldiers among his congregants.
“Here’s Ben Sklaver, a kid who went to Harvard, was a captain, founded the ClearWater Initiative in Africa and was digging these wells with his platoon and believed in tikkun olam,” he says. “He saw the army as the most powerful force for peace. He believed what we taught him about tikkun olam. With Eric, here you have a kid who didn’t go to college and joined the army. And the two shared a patriotism for the U.S., and believed it could be a good force for humanity and could spread democracy. The pain and loss of a child is the same.”
The same army lieutenant who called to report Sklaver’s death contacted Brockman last week. Brockman recalls, “He said, ‘I hope you don’t take this in the wrong way, but the last time we spoke, I said I hoped it would be the last time.’”