Rabbi Herbert Brockman of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden set to retire
HAMDEN >> For more than 30 years, Rabbi Herbert Brockman has led Congregation Mishkan Israel as well acted as a public advocate for social justice and reconciliation.
For Brockman, the two roles are one and the same, based on principles that go back through the ages to the Torah and Jewish teachings.
“The legacy that I inherited was a legacy that Judaism didn’t just happen within the four walls of the institution,” Brockman said. “It doesn’t just happen within a ritual, within the four walls of your synagogue. God created the world, not the synagogue.
“It’s not just about the uniqueness of my tradition, although that’s certainly an important part of it, but it must go beyond that,” he said.
Brockman, 73, who has led the Ridge Road congregation since 1986, recently announced his retirement in June 2018.
“We feel a sense of obligation as a people of faith, as a religious community,” said Brockman. “The source of it comes from the institution, but it goes out to the wider world and it enriches our community.”
He said his work has always been based in faith and tradition, whether it’s leading a group of synagogues, the Jewish Community Alliance for Refugee Resettlement, to sponsor a family from Syria, discussing how to become a sanctuary synagogue for undocumented immigrants or even in growing vegetables for area soup kitchens, called the Peah Project.
“When we do that, we study the laws of Leviticus and I tell them, not just metaphysically but in reality, this project of raising vegetables is rooted not just in the earth but in our tradition,” he said. In Leviticus, one of the five books of Moses, Jews are told to leave the edges of their fields unharvested for the poor and the foreigner.
Such actions are based on the Jewish principle of “tikkun olam,” meaning “repair the world,” Brockman said.
SERVICE TO ALL
“I think in Herb Brockman’s mind, service to the community and to all people is not really distinguishable, because he believes and advocates that all people are to aspire to the same value, principles and ethics,” said Mark Sklarz of New Haven, who is serving a second term as president of Mishkan Israel. “That is in his mind consistent with our Jewish tradition.
“He’s an extraordinary human being. His devotion, his commitment to what’s right, his desire to help in a positive way any individual who may be having some misfortune, his dedication to teaching children what is right is a role model for all society,” Sklarz said.
Throughout his career, Brockman has worked with leaders of other faiths, especially Christians and Muslims, who all claim Abraham as their common ancestor.
“Religion should be a bridge to others, not a barrier, not a wall,” he said. “That’s what it means when we talk about being a monotheistic religion.”
Omer Bajwa, the Muslim chaplain at Yale University, said of Brockman, “He’s genuinely extended a hand. He’s been a great bridge builder.
“I think one of the special contributions of Rabbi Brockman is he’s very interested in engaging with all parts of the Muslim community and inviting in the Christian community to engage with the Muslim community.”
Those bridges can be meaningful even when they’re mundane parts of everyday life.
Brockman told of a message he received recently from a Christian woman who used Mishkan Israel’s parking lot to teach an Iraqi Muslim woman how to drive. “Father Abraham would be proud,” the card said. “That says it all,” Brockman added.
While bringing diverse people together is a key part of his work, Brockman is touched by the personal encounters with his members.
He told of visiting a congregant who was in his 90s and close to death. The man said to him, “‘Rabbi, what can we celebrate today?’ The highlight was in the midst of sadness and depression … he still pulled me in and wanted to celebrate. The highlight was just what he taught me,” Brockman said.
Brockman sees his pastoral ministry at Mishkan Israel, conducting weddings, funerals and preparing boys and girls for their bar and bat mitzvahs, as “grounding” his ability to take risks in the broader community. In order to “motivate the congregation to take in refugees from Syria … as I’m doing now, you have to have the credibility.”
Brockman tested that credibility in 1993, when he invited Riad Mansour of the Palestine Liberation Organization to speak at Mishkan Israel. “It was extremely controversial,” Brockman said, because the PLO was a sworn enemy of Israel. He said the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater New Haven said of his invitation, “‘It just shows that Brockman has enough credibility to do incredibly stupid things.’” Brockman said he took that as a compliment. Mansour is now the permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations.
Turning to the current political divisions over the campaign and election of President Donald Trump — Brockman spoke at a City Hall rally in support of immigrants less than a week after Trump’s inauguration. He described the formation of the Confessing Church during World War II, in reaction to Nazi Germany’s efforts to unify the Protestant churches into a pro-government church. One of the founders, Karl Barth, wrote the Barmen Declaration, declaring allegiance only to God and Christian principles.
While the Trump administration is not comparable to Hitler’s regime, Brockman said the faith community can contribute to bringing people together by boldly holding to their principles.
“While some may see this as going a bit far … wouldn’t it be interesting if in this 21st century, in an interfaith way, we could write a new Barmen Declaration, a Connecticut Declaration,” Brockman said.
Mishkan Israel, a Reform congregation, celebrates Brockman’s vision of interfaith cooperation with an annual tribute to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year, 19 religious leaders of a wide variety of faiths attended.
“We have to be able to see that in each other, what each other’s faiths contribute to one another,” Brockman said.
He laments the lack of activism and interfaith cooperation today compared with the 1960s, when civil rights and the Vietnam War energized people of faith. Today, “I think they’re just busy, they’re trying to survive day to day, which is very difficult.”
But he sees hope in the support of undocumented immigrants and other causes. In a recent meeting with New Haven Mayor Toni Harp, there were “dozens of … small Latino churches. In the meeting with the mayor they had to have translators; they didn’t understand English.” It gave Brockman new insight into Greater New Haven’s religious landscape. “We can only be helpful to the extent that we work with each other,” he said. “It’s an honor to work with them. … It enriches yourself.”
Brockman and his wife, Elin Brockman, aren’t sure “what Act 2 will be.”
“We really consider this our home,” he said. “We moved here in our first year of marriage” from Allentown, Pennsylvania, where Brockman, a seventh-generation rabbi who grew up Orthodox, served his first congregation.
When he arrived in Hamden, Brockman stepped into the pulpit previously occupied by Rabbi Robert Goldburg, who had established a national reputation for social justice and human rights. King and the Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr. had also preached there. “The idea of that was very intimidating,” Brockman said.
“My biggest fear was that I would not do justice to (Goldburg’s) legacy. Usually the successor of someone who’s well known and respected fails because they all try to be that person. You can’t. You have to be your own person.”
Brockman said at least 10 of his religious school students have gone on to become rabbis. The principal and two teachers in Mishkan Israel’s Sunday school grew up in the congregation. And “nearly half the congregation has been here as long as I have,” Brockman said. “That’s an amazing statistic considering the transient nature of the community and of the state.”
He said he’s proud that “here in this place you’ll be accepted … that the congregation continues to be open and not be afraid to welcome strangers … and where people of different points of view could argue and feel safe.”
“What you see is what you get,” said member David Schaefer. “He’s open. He may not agree with you but you can discuss things with him easily, even if you disagree.”
One of the areas that members disagree about is the state of Israel. Brockman said that the issue that “in the past would unite us in the Jewish community has become a third rail,” with some arguing for negotiating peace with the Palestinians and others defending the building of settlements in the occupied West Bank.
“I may be a liberal, which I am when it comes to Israeli government policy, (but) I can talk to someone on the right. … As long as we agree that we are a single family and that the safety and security of the Jewish people … is of ultimate importance … then we can have our arguments.”
Brockman’s own view is that Israelis and Palestinians must negotiate to “find a way to peace, find a way to settle differences. … I think there are ways to negotiate each other’s space when the intent is not to kill each other.”
Sydney Perry, who retired as executive director of the Jewish Federation in 2015 after 30 years with the organization, called Brockman “a prophetic voice in New Haven and he’s willing, when we fall short of our best values, our moral values, to excoriate and critique us.”
“Even sometimes when it’s hard to hear, Herb reminds us to do the right and the good, which is another way of saying ‘justice,’” she said.
The Rev. Bonita Grubbs, executive director of Christian Community Action, considers herself a friend of Brockman’s. “He is driven by the pursuit of justice and will step into the public square to speak, to bear witness about those things which he considers to be unjust, and I’ve never had the sense that he was looking for a bully pulpit (but) that he was driven by his faith and his conviction,” she said.
Grubbs recounted how, after a fire damaged CCA’s apartments that provided temporary housing for the homeless, “Herb arrived with a bouquet of flowers, and a hug and it was the most compassionate thing that anyone has done. … It brought me to tears.”
Maria Kahn of Cheshire, a member of Mishkan Israel, said Brockman’s sermons “are really incredible. You leave feeling very much inspired. He doesn’t just lead the congregation; he leads by example in the way he treats everyone with kindness and respect.”
Bishop Peter Rosazza, bishop emeritus in the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford, said of Brockman, “I see him as tops. I admire the man personally. I stand in awe of his ability to articulate whatever he’s involved in, to be able to see the big picture and the small one at the same time.
“I would say amongst the clergy too, Rabbi Brockman is one of my best friends,” Rosazza said. “His retirement is well deserved, obviously, but will leave a lacuna as far as clergy activism” in Greater New Haven.
“He’s an outstanding human being,” Rosazza said. “He’s a great credit to his long, beautiful, religious tradition.”
Call Ed Stannard at 203-680-9382.