By Stacey Dresner
FAIRFIELD – Rabbi Israel Stein, who served as spiritual leader of Congregation Rodeph Shomon in Bridgeport from 1974 to 2003, died Sept. 24 at the age of 79 after a long illness.
More than 900 people attended the funeral, held at Rodeph Sholom, where he was the beloved rabbi emeritus.
“At the funeral, the entire synagogue was full,” said Sandra Rudnicki of Bloomfield, a cousin of the rabbi’s wife Roslyn. “There were kids, teenagers, people in their 20s, all the way up to very old people. He really was a person who connected with everybody.”
“He was a rabbi’s rabbi,” said Richard Gans, a friend of the family. “He loved Judaism, loved God, loved sharing his commitment and love and passion of Judaism with everyone. He was not afraid to be all involved in everyone’s lives at very difficult times. He was more than a rabbi, he was a friend and a beautiful person. He will always be a teacher to all of us.”
Born in Hartford, Israel Stein – known as “Iz” to his friends and family – was the son of Rose Abrahamson Stein and Jacob M. Stein, a Jewish educator in the Hartford area who taught at several area Talmud Torahs and served the Emanuel Synagogue as head educator for decades.
“I grew up in Hartford in a fairly religious home but of a background that was fairly modest in means,” Rabbi Israel Stein said in a Trinity College alumni profile several years ago. “In my years at Trinity, there was no active chapter of Hillel. I continued my Jewish studies at my local synagogue in Hartford under the tutelage of my father, of blessed memory, who was my mentor in religious studies in my most formative years.”
Stein graduated from Weaver High School, where he was a letterman in sports, including tennis. He went on to graduate from Trinity with a B.A. in romance languages (Spanish, French, and Italian) in 1958. He later got a master’s degree in Hebrew literature and honorary doctorate of divinity from The Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS).
After his ordination as a rabbi in 1964, Stein entered the military chaplaincy and was honorably discharged with the rank of captain. He later served as assistant rabbi of Congregation Beth El, Rochester, New York and as rabbi of the Jewish Center of Bayside Hills, Bayside, New York.
He arrived in Bridgeport in 1974.
Mark Block, executive director of Rodeph Sholom, grew up going to the temple and fondly recalls Rabbi Stein from those years.
“He was fun-loving. He had a couple of wonderful magic tricks and we always tried to figure out how he did them. We never really did. But he always had a smile on his face when he did them,” Block said. “It was an absolute pleasure and a privilege to be able to grow up and mature with him.”
While at Rodeph Sholom, Stein served as president of the Greater Bridgeport Board of Rabbis and the Bridgeport Chapter of the Zionist Organization of America. He also served on the Bridgeport Council on Adolescent Pregnancy and the Mayor’s Commission on Literacy. He was a member of the National Rabbinic Cabinet for the State of Israel Bonds and of the Rabbinic Cabinet of the United Jewish Appeal.
While at Rodeph Sholom, he was at the forefront of the campaign to bring Jews from the former Soviet Union to the U.S.
“A deep-seated passion of his” said Block, was to help “rescue” youngsters in cults at the time when the Rev. Sun Myung Moon and his Unification church were involved with the University of Bridgeport in the 1980s. He also was an outspoken advocate on the issue of teenage pregnancy and birth control, “when it was not so much in vogue to talk about so publicly,” Block said. “He was very much affected about those who were less fortunate in Bridgeport and interested in doing what we could in terms of social action to help, to be aware of it. He used to say to me when we were in my office, ‘Those of us who are better off have an absolute obligation to help those who are not.’ That was a tenet of his rabbinate.”
During 2010-2011, Rabbi Israel resumed the pulpit for a year at Rodeph Sholom when the congregation was between rabbis and he and Block became colleagues.
“He would be frenetic. He would run into the office and run back out of the office with his calendar – a small little pocket calendar that he carried rubber-banded to that week, and he would make little notes all over: who he wanted to meet, who he had to see, where he had to be,” Block said. “He wanted me to call him “Iz” and I just couldn’t. I said, ‘You are my rabbi and I like to think you are just a little closer to God than I am.’”
Rabbi Stein was also a devoted family man to his beloved wife, Roz, and their four sons.
“He was an avid watcher of baseball. He was a fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers and that transitioned to the Mets. He loved watching baseball with us and taking us to baseball games,” his son, Jeremy said.
“He was on the synagogue softball team for many years,” added his son, Seth.
Athletic, he was an avid runner and played tennis until a few years ago.
“He always had a Frisbee in his hand. Whenever we were leaving the house, he would always say, ‘Did anyone bring the Frisbee?’” Jeremy laughed. “That was something we always did as a family – we played Frisbee.”
That fun-loving side also extended to the younger members of his congregation, Jeremy said.
“He juggled as a rabbi, he engaged the nursery school students in the synagogue,” Seth said. “His best trick, and the one he loved to pull out, was a three-apple trick where he would juggle two apples with one hand and eat an apple with the other hand. And he would keep eating the apple until he went through the core until he finished the apple.”
Rabbi Stein was also passionate about Israel.
“He was very proud that we made aliyah,” said Jeremy, who now lives in Efrat, Israel with his family. His politics was formed based on Israel. If a politician was good for Israel, that is kind of how he would vote, although sometimes that didn’t reconcile with his own personal politics. And if he ever ran across an Israeli, he would get really super excited. He would run into an Israeli and he was like, ‘Where do you live?’ and start speaking Hebrew with them,” Jeremy said. “He was the zondik – he held his great-grandson while he had his circumcision and to do that in Israel that was something special.”
Rabbi Stein is survived by his wife, Roz, four sons, Jeremy, who lives in Efrat, Israel with his family, Jay, a rabbi in Dobbs Ferry, New York, Eli of White Plains, New York and Seth, of Fairfield; 11 grandchildren; and four great-grandsons.
CAP: Rabbi Israel Stein at the bimah at Congregation Rodeph Sholom.