- Associated Press - Saturday, February 14, 2015

HAMDEN, Conn. (AP) - As Norman Rashba, a longtime member of Congregation Mishkan Israel, remembers the early 1960s, “the circumstances in the community were very interesting at that time. This was really the beginning of the social justice revolution.”

At Mishkan Israel, the social justice revolution arrived in 1961 in the person of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. It was just one of many high points in the history of the congregation, which is celebrating its 175th anniversary this year.

For a group of members who recently gathered to remember that time, it was the leadership of Rabbi Robert Goldburg that brought consciousness of the civil rights period to the then-new synagogue on Ridge Road.

Rabbi Goldburg’s tenure was controversial at times - civil rights activist Stokely Carmichael spoke from the rear of the sanctuary, not the pulpit, with the seats turned around, either because of his message or because of the bullets draped across his chest.

And it was welcoming enough to include Christians and other non-Jews: The Rev. William Sloane Coffin Jr., Christian chaplain at Yale University, preached so often he “was like another rabbi here,” said Mr. Rashba, 88, a Hamden resident.

That interfaith tradition continues at the Reform synagogue with an annual Martin Luther King Day service under Rabbi Herbert Brockman that includes Christians, Baha’is, Quakers, Muslims and an interfaith community choir.

“I think that was Rabbi Goldburg’s intention, to bring what we were not exposed to,” said Betsy Rosenthal, 67, of Hamden. “Because he was a social activist, it was notable and inspiring and it wasn’t done” in other congregations.

“For those of us who were young here, Rabbi Goldburg was really a role model of social justice, and it was never in a condescending or patronizing manner,” said Mark Sklarz, 69, of New Haven. “Our role was to maintain justice and equality and Rabbi Goldburg lived that.”

Rabbi Goldburg met King when they spent time together in a Southern jail during the early civil rights protests. King was supposed to inaugurate Mishkan Israel’s new synagogue in 1960 - the congregation had moved from Orange and Audubon streets in New Haven, now the Educational Center for the Arts - but King had been locked up again. So he came a year later, on Oct. 20, 1961.

“My parents were so ecstatic at the thought that Dr. King would be coming to Mishkan Israel,” said Mr. Sklarz. “It just set the congregation apart.”

“Social action and justice were I think a huge part to me” of congregational life,” said Jill Koufman, 41, now of Richmond, Maine. “It was about respect for human beings, and persecution baffled me. I have the ‘mountaintop speech’ (by King) on my wall still.”

King wasn’t controversial in 1961, except in the South.  He would become so later, when he started speaking out against Vietnam. But other speakers at Mishkan Israel have been: Carmichael, Daniel Ellsberg, Alger Hiss, Ramsey Clark, Paul Robeson Jr. “There were a number of them who really raised the ire of certain people in the congregation,” said Mr. Rashba.

But when King spoke, “the whole feeling you had (was) that you were in the presence of greatness . that it was worldly,” said Elaine Koufman, 66, who now lives in Bath, Maine, and is Jill Koufman’s mother.

Keeping an open mind as a Jew was “the norm that we were taught,” said Ms. Rosenthal. “We weren’t taught that we were insular and that we didn’t go outside of our faith. We were exposed to others.”

Rabbi Goldburg not only fed the intellect of the congregation, but was almost a paternal presence.

“During the Vietnam era . when I got arrested, I called Rabbi Goldburg for the bail money,” said Elaine Koufman. “I didn’t dare call my father.”

Barry Berman, 65, said he was too young at 11 to have gone to the service when King spoke, but he did remember an anecdote he’s heard through the years about a now-closed luncheonette downtown, which was a popular eatery. The president of the congregation at the time, Paul Press of J. Press men’s clothing, picked up King at Union Station “and King was hungry, so they went to Yankee Doodle and had some hamburgers.”

Mr. Berman said Rabbi Goldburg, by inviting a wide variety of speakers, fed the intellect of his congregation, while the cantor at the time, Harry Sebran, fed the people’s heart.

Now, Mr. Berman said Rabbi Herbert Brockman “truly has inherited the mantle of both.”

“He’s taken it up a notch in both categories,” said Mr. Berman.

Rabbi Brockman, who has sparked controversy himself, such as in 1993 when he brought in the U.N. representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) to speak, said he was humbled by the accolade.

“I would be honored to think that,” he said of Mr. Berman’s comments. “But for me I think I’m fortunate when I talk to my colleagues” among area clergy. “I think I’m fortunate to have this place.”


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