Original Article Published On The Jewish Ledger
HAMDEN — When Marilyn Monroe converted to Judaism and married writer Arthur Miller, she turned to Rabbi Robert Goldburg, the same New Haven rabbi who was labeled a Communist during the McCarthy era, had a 205-page FBI dossier for his vigorous opposition to the Vietnam War, and would later be arrested in Georgia for marching with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Rabbi Goldburg, known for his strong commitment to social justice, served as rabbi of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden from 1948-1982.
The history of Congregation Mishkan Israel, which at 165 years old is the 14th oldest Jewish congregation in the United States, is now on exhibit at the New Haven Colony Historical Society.
“Mishkan Israel 1840-2005: The Story of New England’s Oldest Continuing Congregation,” on display until May 14, features a copy of Monroe’s 1956 “Certificate of Conversion,” photographs of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at Mishkan Israel in 1960, and a 10 x 7.5 foot limited edition Ben Shahn silk tapestry entitled “Menorah.” The exhibit also features other historical photos, documents, artifacts and a video that showcase the rich history of Mishkan Israel.
The congregation was founded in 1840, when a group of Bavarian Jews, fleeing economic and social oppression, settled in New Haven. These families opened drugstores, umbrella and corset factories, cigar companies, and dry goods and tailor shops. The congregants were liberal-minded yet traditional in practice men and women sat separately during services, and would-be members had to prove that they kept the Sabbath and observed the dietary laws. Congregants initially worshiped (on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays) over the Heller and Mandelbaum store on Grand Avenue and State Street. By 1849, services were held in the Brewster Building at State and Chapel Streets.
New Orleans philanthropist Judah Touro, best known for his contribution to the synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island which still bears his name, gave a sizable donation — $5,000 which enabled these Bavarian Jews to purchase a building in New Haven.
In 1856, the congregation purchased the Third Congregational Church building, which served as its home until 1897.
The synagogue’s commitment to local and world issues was evident even in those early years. In 1858, Mishkan Israel joined the international protest against the kidnapping and baptizing of a Jewish child, Edgardo Mortara, in Bologna, Italy.
A letter from Moses Montefiore regarding the case is on display at the Historical Society exhibit. During the Civil War, congregants served in the Union Army, and the synagogue held special services and volunteered at the local military hospital. In the 1870s, Rabbi Judah Wechsler forged Mishkan Israel’s commitment to interfaith activities with his “no unfriendly words” policy; he preached unity and harmony and respect for religious differences. In the 1880s, under Rabbi Leopold Kleeberg, the congregation provided aid to Eastern European Jews arriving in New Haven.
Following Rabbi Kleeberg’s tenure, the congregation was lead by Rabbi Louis Mann and Rabbi Edgar Siskin.
By the mid-1890s, the temple grew to 190 families, and moved to a larger home on Orange Street. They also embraced the more progressive practices of Classical Reform Judaism. By the 1950s, when the congregation grew to more than 700 families, a building was purchased on Ridge Road in Hamden.
During Rabbi Goldburg’s tenure, the temple became known nationally for its commitment to social justice.
After Rabbi Goldburg’s retirement in 1982, Rabbi Mark Panoff and then Rabbi Herbert Brockman have continued his legacy. Under Rabbi Brockman’s leadership, Mishkan Israel has continued its service to the Jewish community and its commitment to the larger world.
In 1989, MIshkan Israel opened its doors to the Urban Youth Center, a program for inner city middle-schoolers and in the early 1990s MIshkan Israel sponsored the settlement of seven Russian Jewish families in New Haven. The congregation’s work with the community continues today with the Pe’ah Project, a congregant-run garden which provides more than a ton of vegetables each year to community soup kitchens.
“Mishkan Israel 1840-2005: The Story of New England’s Oldest Continuing Congregation,” will be on view until May 14 at the New Haven Colony Historical Society 114 Whitney Avenue, New Haven.
Open Tues-Fri 10-5; Sat 12-5. Visit http://www.nhchs.org or call (203) 562-4183.