Congregation Mishkan Israel interior

Acts of Faith

It’s uncommon for a congregation to have had a rabbi with an FBI file, or to use a pulpit inaugurated by Martin Luther King Jr.

Then again, Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden is anything but common, with 175 years of rich, active, activist history to look back upon. Founded in 1840, CMI was the first Jewish congregation in New Haven. Progressive even then, it began holding interfaith services as early as 1847. In the 1880s, during a time of increased persecution against Jews in Eastern Europe, the synagogue subsidized the immigration of Jewish families from czarist Russia to the U.S.

Under the leadership of rabbi Robert E. Goldburg, who served between 1948 and 1982, the congregation became known as a strong proponent of liberal causes. An outspoken supporter of the civil rights movement, Goldburg was arrested in 1962 along with Dr. King and other clergy while participating in a civil rights march in Georgia. Goldburg later supported protests of the Vietnam War and caused controversy for continuously filling his services and programs with political messages.

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Alongside his legacy of activism, Goldburg is also remembered as the rabbi who presided over Marilyn Monroe’s conversion to Judaism and her marriage ceremony to playwright Arthur Miller. Despite Goldburg’s wishes, the anecdote still makes up a large part of the rabbi’s lore. A more welcome part is the 120-page FBI dossier, which the rabbi obtained by petition later in his life. “He was very proud of that file,” remembers Herbert Brockman, the current rabbi of CMI (pictured above next to Arthur Giglio, the congregation’s cantor).

Brockman began his appointment in 1986, and under his watch activism continues to be a part of the congregation’s character. In 1990, after the Iron Curtain fell, the synagogue again subsidized the immigration of Russian-Jewish families to the U.S., followed by a Muslim family fleeing the Bosnian Genocide and another only three years ago, fleeing Iraq. According to Brockman, a friend of Goldburg’s once quipped, “Mishkan Israel is the only synagogue with a foreign policy!”

Domestically, CMI’s Life is Delicious prepares meals for a local homeless shelter, and the synagogue is a part of the Abraham’s Tent initiative, which offers housing to select homeless during the winter. What’s more, the garden in back produces over a ton of vegetables for area soup kitchens. The yearly bounty includes squash, tomato, arugula and corn—a staple crop in the rabbi’s home state, Ohio—which Brockman sows himself.

In 1993, he outraged many when he invited Ryad Mansour, who was then the deputy observer to the United Nations from the Palestine Liberation Organization, to speak at CMI. According to Brockman, it’s the rabbi’s job to “comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” At the service last Friday, Brockman did a bit of both when he spoke about the pending nuclear deal with Iran and the consequences should it fall apart.

The service was Mishkan Israel’s final clergy-led Shabbat of the summer. For the months of July and August, Brockman takes a recess from services to spend Shabbat privately, with his family. But the congregation fills in for him with gusto, he says. “They love leading services. Some even write and preach their own sermons.”

At the service, about 60 or 70 individuals of the congregation’s 600 families were in attendance. Though they were mostly middle-age and elderly, attendees talked energetically over wine and snacks before picking up prayer books and filing into pews. Much of the service was supplemented with English translations of the Hebrew to help members access the meanings of the prayers. When there was Hebrew, it was often carried along by the musical accompaniment of two singers and a keyboardist.

Towards the end, the service became more solemn. Brockman read off names of those in the community who’d recently passed away. Those who knew the departed stood. Along with the Mourner’s Kaddish, the congregation heard a poem by Yehuda HaLevi, a twelfth-century poet and philosopher, which began: “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch … A thing for fools… And a sacred thing.”

The service came to an end on a brighter chord with some characteristic Jewish humor. As Brockman gave his farewell for the summer, the rabbi wished his congregation a boring summer: “one without wars and without hardships… so that when I sit down to write services at the end of the summer there will be nothing to talk about.”

It’s wishful thinking, indeed. 175 years in, Mishkan Israel still has plenty to talk about, and to do.

Congregation Mishkan Israel
785 Ridge Rd, Hamden (map)
Mon-Fri 8:30am-4:30pm
(203) 288-3877
Website | Calendar

Written and photographed by Daniel Shkolnik.

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