Henry Okolica, longtime New Britain rabbi, dies at the age of 103
By Stacey Dresner
NEW BRITAIN – Rabbi Henry Okolica, who served as spiritual leader of Congregation Tephereth Israel in New Britain for half a century, died on Sept. 25 at the age of 103.
Often called “everybody’s rabbi,” Okolica was mourned by city and state officials from throughout Connecticut.
He served 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. He also served as chaplain for state and local police departments and the New Britain Fire Department.
Just three years ago, the town of New Britain celebrated his 100th birthday at a party at CCSU, led by then Mayor Tim O’Brien and the New Britain Chamber of Commerce. The guest list was long and included not just the Jewish community, but numerous members of the general community, a testament to how Rabbi Okolica embraced everyone who came across his path, regardless of their background. Gov. Dannel Malloy issued a proclamation declaring Nov. 27, 2013, Rabbi Henry Okolica Day in the state.
“He had a way of speaking to the heart of all,” Dr. Linda Schwartz, who worked with Okolica when she was the state commissioner of Veterans Affairs and assistant secretary of Veterans Affairs in Washington, told the New Britain Herald. “He had a following of nuns, a following from other religions. Veterans felt he was someone who could hear them.”
Born on Nov. 27, 1913 in Germany, Okolica told the Hartford Courant in 2003 that he knew early on that he wanted to be a rabbi. “It was my calling since I was a little boy,” he said in the interview.
He began attending morning services as a young boy and attended yeshiva before becoming a rabbinical student. He met his future wife, Lisbeth, when he was hired to teach her English.
Right after Kristallnacht, he was imprisoned in a Gestapo jail cell but was freed when Lisbeth’s family paid a bribe to his German jailers.
“God took care of me,” he said in an interview. “I didn’t escape Germany to live my own life. I escaped because God commanded me to be his helper.’’
In 1939, he escaped to Belgium, later making it to England.
He arrived in New York in 1940, and the couple married the following year. They moved first to Montgomery, Alabama, then Bellingham, Washington, where he led a small synagogue.
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 placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1995. At that time, the bustling synagogue boasted more than 500 members, including many immigrant families from Ukraine and Lithuania, drawn to the factory jobs of the “Hardware City.” The Okolicas were well known for their Shabbat hospitality, inviting congregants and strangers to their home every week.
“I knew him and had great admiration for him as a person of faith, devotion to his wife and very large family, and his affection for New Britain and Veterans,” said Robert Fishman, former executive director of JFACT who was close to Rabbi Okolica when he lived in New Britain. “He was a Jewish scholar and a warm and caring pulpit rabbi. He was a dedicated teacher and always greeted me with a twinkle in his eyes. His 100th birthday celebration at CCSU was very well attended and an inspirational tribute to a special man who I was proud to call a dear friend.”
Seth Feigenbaum grew up in New Britain and at Tephereth Israel.
“Not only did Rabbi Okolica bar mitzvah me in 1969, and my Hebrew school class appeared on Jewish Life to sing Chanukah songs, 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,” Feigenbaum told the Jewish Ledger in 2013.
“In Hebrew school, Rabbi Okolica told us about how he escaped from the Holocaust,” recalls Feigenbaum. “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.
The Italian community experienced discrimination as well as Jews and other minorities, says Michael Tomasso.
“It’s something we all shared, being immigrants and speaking with accents,” he told the Ledger in 2014. “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.”
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.
“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,” Tomasso said in 2014. “His door was always open, he was always ready with a kind word; he was everybody’s spiritual advisor…He became a beloved figure in town and taught us all a lot about how to live.”
A strong supporter of the African American community, he attended civil rights marches, and rode the bus to the 1963 March on Washington. He also took an African American clergy member with him when he made his high school visits.
As industry faded in New Britain in the late ‘70s, membership at Tephereth Israel began to dwindle as well, with barely a minyan left by the early 2000s.
Okolica 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. In 2000, students from the Yeshiva Gedolah in Waterbury began travelling 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.
Both the rabbi and his wife were fixtures at Hillel holiday celebrations like Sukkot and Chanukah at Central Connecticut State University. He would also frequently deliver the convocation speech at the annual undergraduate commencement.
“He was the rabbi for Hillel at Central for many years,” said Sharon Braverman, Hillel advisor. “He was a very outgoing, caring individual. He didn’t really care whether the students were Jewish or not Jewish, he just cared that they visited their families and talked to their families and believed in something. He was great. He would walk across campus and say things to kids he didn’t even know like, ‘Did you call your mother today?’”
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.’’
Well into his 90s, Rabbi Okolica made his way several times a weekly to the New Britain YMCA to exercise and swim laps.
In 2010, he moved to the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn, N.Y. to live with his daughter.
“New Britain has lost its spiritual leader,” said Michael Schroeder, publisher of the New Britain Herald who attended the rabbi’s funeral in Monsey, New York on the evening of Monday, Sept. 25, with Rabbi Moshe Tendler officiating. “He was friend to many and anyone who came in contact with him left a better person. It didn’t matter what your race or religion was, the rabbi always knew the right thing to say.”
Rabbi Okolica was predeceased by his wife, Lisbeth Jungster Okolica, who died in 2014. He is survived by four children and more than 100 grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
“He sowed a lot of seeds of good will and understanding,” Schwartz told the Herald. “No one will ever be able to count how many people he touched.”