By Cindy Mindell
SOUTHBURY – Rabbi Eric Polokoff arrived here in 1997 in the midst of several firsts. It was the first pulpit for the then-35-year-old rabbi. He was the first permanent spiritual leader hired by the decade-old Congregation B’nai Chaim. And the congregation was about to embark on a merger process with Temple Israel in nearby Waterbury, which would lead to a new name – B’nai Israel of Southbury – and a new synagogue building.
This year marks the 25th anniversary of Polokoff’s ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York, where he also earned a Doctor of Divinity. B’nai Israel will celebrate the milestone on the Shabbat weekend of Oct. 16 and 17.
B’nai Israel precursor Congregation B’nai Chaim was founded in Southbury in 1987 by a group of local Jewish residents seeking a Reform community. Initially run by lay leaders and part-time rabbis, the congregation had expanded enough by 1997 to hire a permanent rabbi. Member Arthur Grant suggested Polokoff, a co-worker at Union of American Hebrew Congregations, now Union of Reform Judaism.
Polokoff was invited to an interview with congregational leaders.
“Eric was young, he was funny, he was late for everything, but people were drawn to him and he brought everybody together,” recalls Grant’s wife, Enid.
B’nai Chaim co-founder Susan Spielberg remembers a unanimous decision to hire the young rabbi.
“When Eric came to Southbury, he found this group of dedicated volunteers and passionate people with different backgrounds, ideas, and beliefs, and he provided a foundation and a focus that allowed the seeds that were planted to take root,” says Spielberg. “At the time, there was a very small Jewish community in a [mostly] non-Jewish area, this small, picture-postcard New England town. Eric gave respectability and recognition to the Jewish community by forming friendships and professional relationships with the local clergy through the interfaith Southbury Clergy Association and town dignitaries.”
He also educated local businesses on Jewish life, Spielberg says, training the Munson-Lovetere Funeral Home in Jewish burial practices and encouraging food markets to carry special foods for the Jewish holidays.
In addition to Polokoff’s work in integrating the Jewish community into greater Southbury, his acumen in shepherding the merger of the two area Reform congregations left a lasting impression on Spielberg.
“The transition was very difficult for everybody,” she says. “Eric had to be a mediator and a listener and a moderator, and he had to be a creator of something new, at the same time deciding what should be kept from both congregations. Everybody had to compromise in order to grow stronger and Eric was helpful in doing that. I’m not sure that they could have done it without him.”
In 2000, the newly-merged B’nai Israel congregation entered into an agreement with the Jewish Communities of Western CT, Inc. to build and inhabit a new Jewish communal campus in Southbury. At the end of 2003, B’nai Israel moved from rented space in nearby Woodbury to the new building.
Current B’nai Israel president David Hill joined the congregation just as the merger was finalized, and has watched Polokoff grow into his leadership role.
“Rabbi Polokoff brings a passion for Torah and Jewish life to our congregation and our community as a whole,” Hill says. “He is an intelligent, engaging, and humorous public speaker; a staunch supporter of Israel; an opponent of antisemitism and bigotry; a defender of human rights; and a compassionate counselor when our congregants have spiritual needs or are simply facing life’s normal challenges. He is an active participant in interfaith activities with both the local Christian and Muslim communities. He is a model rabbi, bringing thoughtful intellect and passion in support of our congregation and his heartfelt beliefs.”
In addition to his congregational work, and his many rabbinical affiliations, Polokoff is involved with several local and national organizations, including the National Commission of the Anti-Defamation League and its National Outreach and Interfaith Affairs Committee, and the Executive Committee of the Anti-Defamation League Connecticut Regional Office, serving as Interfaith Committee chair and chair of the Confronting Anti-Semitism Project.
He also sits on the boards of The Federation-Jewish Communities of Western CT, the Jewish Federation Association of Connecticut (JFACT), the Waterbury Hospital Ethics Committee, and the Southbury Community Trust Fund. He is the associate Jewish chaplain of The Taft School in Watertown. Polokoff was named a Connecticut Jewish Ledger “Mover and Shaker” in 2006.
“I have enjoyed the distinct blessing of serving in the same community for nearly all of my rabbinate; we have grown and matured together,” says Polokoff. “I’ve sought to reach out to individuals and their families at sacred moments in their lives, further personalizing their encounter with Judaism; teach a liberal, inclusive Torah that nurtures love for the people Israel, Zionism, and respect for others; offer caring, steady, reasoned and humble guidance to those in need or crisis; continue my own learning and embracing diligent preparation; and link my congregation and community to a network of institutions within and beyond the organized Jewish community.”
Polokoff praises his congregants for initiating and engaging in innovative programming, from Purim spiels and Israel-advocacy workshops, to human-rights and Darfur-awareness events, to interfaith collaborations and the making of the 2012 documentary film, Home of the Brave: When Southbury Said No to the Nazis.
Polokoff and his wife, Ellen, a surgeon specializing in breast surgery, raised two daughters in Southbury, one now an undergraduate in Washington, D.C. and the other a graduate student in Haifa.
“I’m introspective enough to know my blessings,” says Polokoff, now 53: “a remarkable spouse, a great family, some amazing friends, a supportive community. I’m also grateful to live in this time and place, spared so many of the horrors, cruelty, and deprivation that so many other Jews and so many other persons have known throughout the ages and across the globe.
“I’ve certainly made my share of mistakes, and like everyone else, I haven’t been shielded entirely from life’s unfairness, sadness, and disappointment. Yet, in reflecting on the past quarter-century, I thank God for ‘allotting my portion amongst those who dwell in the House of Study.’ So it’s good to pause and celebrate with dear ones – particularly as the rabbinical work does not get any easier. The concerns we face as a people and as a nation continue to grow exponentially, so there remains much more work to do, and much more Torah to share.”
B’nai Israel of Southbury, 444 Main St. North, Southbury, will celebrate Rabbi Eric Polokoff’s 25th anniversary in the rabbinate at a special Shabbat service and oneg on Friday, Oct. 16, followed by a gala on Saturday, Oct. 17. For tickets and more information: (203) 267-3394 / email@example.com.