By Cindy Mindell
NEW BRITAIN – It’s been a full journey for Rabbi Henry Okolica over his first century – from Kristallnacht and a Gestapo jail cell in his native Germany to refuge and pulpits in New York, Washington, Florida, and, for 50 years, as spiritual leader of Congregation Tephereth Israel in New Britain.
As the rabbi nears his 100th birthday, his adopted home town is gearing up to celebrate, led by New Britain mayor Tim O’Brien and the local Chamber of Commerce.
Considering all the people and organizations he has touched during his lifelong tenure as a community leader, the guest list is long and variegated, telling a vivid story of how the rabbi embraces everyone, regardless of background.
New Britain Mayor Tim O’Brien is hosting a “meet and greet” for the rabbi on Thursday, Nov. 14, 4 p.m at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU). The New Britain Chamber of Commerce will honor Okolica at its 100th annual dinner at 6 p.m. at CCSU. Both events are open to the community, but reservations are required.
Born on Nov. 27, 1913 in Germany, Okolica began attending daily morning services as a boy, returning home many times with a hungry friend or stranger to share his meager breakfast. He knew early on that he wanted to be a rabbi, he said in an interview in the Hartford Courant in 2003. “It was my calling since I was a little boy,” he said in the interview. “I entered the job to save people – not only Jewish people, all people. God took care of me. I didn’t escape Germany to live my own life. I escaped because God commanded me to be his helper.’’
Okolica studied at yeshiva in Germany, where he became a rabbi, traveling great distances to teach and lead services. He met his future wife, Lisbeth, when he was hired to teach her English.
He arrived in New York in 1940, and the couple married the following year. They settled in New Britain in 1960, raising a son and three daughters. Okolica took the pulpit of Congregation Tephereth Israel, a building erected in 1925 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. At the time, the bustling synagogue boasted more than 500 members, including many first- and second-generation immigrant families from Ukraine and Lithuania, drawn to the abundant factory jobs of “Hardware City.” Some 600 Jewish families lived in downtown New Britain, populating Tephereth Israel and Temple B’nai Israel on West Main Street and opening Jewish businesses along Hartford Avenue. The Okolicas were well known for their Shabbat hospitality, inviting congregants and strangers to their home every week.
In 1970, Okolica created and hosted a weekly TV show, “Jewish Life,” for WVIT-Channel 30, which ran for more than 30 years. “Of all the religious leaders, he was the most dogged about reaching across lines of faith to build a community,’’ former U.S. Rep. Nancy Johnson told the Courant in 2003. “Back when there were such deep lines between Catholics and [other] Christians in New Britain, that even they couldn’t talk to each other, he was the one who knew that everyone had to come together. He was an activist and a unifier, profoundly accepting and loving.”
Seth Feigenbaum grew up in New Britain and at Tephereth Israel, the grandson of one of the synagogue’s founders, who came to the city from Austria. “Not only did Rabbi Okolica bar mitzvah me in 1969, and my Hebrew school class appeared on Jewish Life to sing Chanukah songs,” Feigenbaum told the Ledger. “But I also had the fortunate experience of hearing him speak in high school, when he would bring a clergy group to both high schools, to talk with the students about social issues and give us a good perspective on the right things to do in life.”
“In Hebrew school, Rabbi Okolica told us about how he escaped from the Holocaust,” recalls Feigenbaum, who just retired after 30 years as assistant city attorney for New Britain. “I think the fact that he saw himself as fortunate to escape and create a family, maybe he wanted to go out and do good things for the community, the congregation, all people. Maybe that was the root of his perspective on his life.”
From those early days, Okolica began to reach out across religious and ethnic lines, and to help anyone in need.
Three generations of the Tomasso family in New Britain count themselves among the rabbi’s many friends and are working with Mayor O’Brien to plan the Nov. 14 tribute.
Angelo Tomasso, now 88, met Okolica through his father, Angelo Sr., an Italian immigrant who came to New Britain in 1923 and founded an excavation and construction company. “He identified the rabbi to me as a true spiritual leader,” he told the Ledger. “We all went to him for counsel and he was a fine, fine personal friend.”
The Italian community experienced discrimination as well as Jews and other minorities, says Angelo Tomasso’s son Michael, who currently serves on the Board of the New Britain Chamber of Commerce Tomsays. “It’s something we all shared, being immigrants and speaking with accents,” he told the Ledger. “I think it caused a closer bond between folks, even across different ethnic and religious backgrounds, because we shared such a strong cultural and family-based commonality.”
Indeed, with Tephereth Israel and St. Ann Church sited back-to-back, there was a lot of cooperation between the two congregations, says Michael Tomasso. “Our pastor held Rabbi Okolica in high regard, and when our church held a tribute for our pastor, the keynote speaker was the rabbi. I would get a call from the rabbi about a family in town who was in trouble and we would help them, together.”
Okolica would make regular rounds at New Britain General Hospital, Feigenbaum says, visiting not only members of Tephereth Israel, but any family in need of spiritual support.
It’s that universality of his humanity that has always drawn people to Okolica, says Tomasso: “He is known in New Britain and the area as everyone’s rabbi and the world would be so much a better place if everyone behaved a little more like him. His door was always open, he was always ready with a kind word; he was everybody’s spiritual advisor. Everybody was just as important to him as everyone else; it didn’t matter if you were black or Hispanic or Jewish or non-Jewish. He became a beloved figure in town and taught us all a lot about how to live.”
Michael’s brother, Bill Tomasso, goes a bit further: “Aside from being a true friend, I see the rabbi as the Almighty’s representative in New Britain and in Connecticut,” he says.
At a public forum in the early ‘60s, the rabbi learned from members of the black community that they couldn’t find good-paying jobs to provide for their families, Michael Tomasso recalls. “So he got my father and others together and said, ‘We have a newer group of immigrants and minorities who need our assistance.’ He and my dad worked closely to create a jobs program, through the YMCA. In my dad’s case, because he had a full-spectrum construction company [Tilcon-Tomasso], he had entry-level jobs through professional engineering and financial jobs, so people could learn the business from the bottom and work their way up.”
Okolica included a black clergy member on his high school visits, supported the black community in peace marches, and even rode the bus to the 1963 March on Washington.
As the American machine-tool industry began to fade in the late ‘70s, so too did New Britain, as factories closed and jobs were shipped south and abroad. The second and third generations went off to college and never returned, leaving Tephereth Israel to dwindle as well, with barely a minyan left by the early 2000s.
Okolica saw the writing on the wall as the city began its slow decline. He arranged an audience in Brooklyn with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Schneerson, who advised that he return to New Britain and live “like Abraham in the desert,” offering hospitality to strangers passing through, and helping the poor.
Okolica served well into his 90s as chaplain at Central Connecticut State University (CCSU) and the Veterans Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill, where he began as a volunteer shortly after his arrival in New Britain, and where he began the first Alcoholics Anonymous program in the ‘60s, and chaplain for state and local police departments and the New Britain Fire Department.
Starting in 2000, students from the Yeshiva Gedolah in Waterbury would travel to Tephereth Israel twice a week to ensure a minyan at morning services. The yeshiva presented Okolica with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2009, a Brooklyn ceremony attended by a bus-load of New Britain admirers. Two years earlier, he received the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit of the Federal Republic of Germany.
The Nov. 14 event is the first time the City of New Britain is honoring a citizen on his 100th birthday, Feigenbaum told the Ledger.
Before the invitation-only dinner, the community is invited to a celebration with Rabbi Okolica, coordinated by Sharon Braverman, assistant dean of the CCSU School of Business and Hillel faculty advisor.
“Rabbi Okolica is so outgoing and welcoming to all kinds of students, no matter their religion,” Braverman says. The rabbi was a fixture at Hillel holiday celebrations like Sukkot and Chanukah. “It was his calling, for both the Jewish community and the entire CCSU community.” Okolica would also frequently deliver the convocation speech at the annual undergraduate commencement, Braverman says.
CCSU awarded Okolica an honorary doctorate in 2003. At the ceremony, then-president Richard Judd said, “He is a rabbi of the people. It doesn’t matter to him if you’re Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Christian, or Buddhist. It doesn’t matter what you are doing. You are always his child, in a biblical sense.’’
Aside from his charisma and eloquence, Michael Tomasso and Seth Feigenbaum cite the rabbi’s well-known sense of humor among his most endearing traits. “He would work out at the YMCA every morning, treading water in the deep end of the pool,” Tomasso recalls. “I would come in and call out, ‘Rabbi, good morning; how is the water?’ and he would always respond, ‘Michael, water is life!”
At a fundraiser for Sen. Joseph Lieberman at the start of his Senate career, Okolica fell into the host’s swimming pool – suit, yarmulke, and all, Feigenbaum says. “We pulled him out and someone said, ‘Rabbi, I thought your people were supposed to walk on water.’ Without missing a beat, the rabbi said, ‘We only do salt water.’”
And, says Tomasso, Okolica was pretty impressive at predicting the Monday night football picks, regularly calling 11 of the 12 games.
For information regarding Rabbi Henry Okolica’s 100th birthday celebration on Thursday, Nov. 14, 4 – 6 p.m. at the CCSU Student Center, Sprague Carlton Room, 1615 Stanley St., New Britain, call Bob Fishman at (860) 727-5701. For reservations for the New Britain Chamber of Commerce Annual Dinner honoring Rabbi Okolica call (860) 229-1665.
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