I’ll tell you a story that will blow your mind away.”
As Daniel Okolica prepares to tell a tale about his Dad, the late Rabbi Henry Okolica, one can sense the enormous love and respect he has for this diminutive giant of a man, or “Everyone’s Rabbi” as he was fondly called by legions of admirers. Daniel’s story captures the essence of his father, a man who embraced and inspired all of humanity regardless of faith, background or station in life.
“I was about 5 years old and we were living in Daytona Beach at the time,” says 72-year-old Daniel recalling his father, one of six 2017 inductees of Connecticut’s Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame. “A man was murdered in our community by his son, and the son was in prison. Remarkably my father took me with him to visit this man, this murderer, in the prison.
“There must have been 20, 30 convicts in a big pen. All the men were down to their underwear, there was no air conditioning. It was stifling. We saw one convict on the floor in a pool of urine,” he continues. “And my father finds this man, this son who killed his father, and speaks with him, counsels him, gives him support. Here I am, 5 years old at the time, witnessing this. Nowadays I’m sure no one would be allowed to bring a 5-year-old into such an environment.
“But this is just the way it was with my father,” Daniel concludes. “It did not make any difference to him who anyone was. You could be deranged. You could be a murderer. You could be the worst of the worst. To my father, you were simply a human being – and all that mattered to him was helping humanity.”
Rabbi Henry Okolica, who passed away in September at age 103 having spent a century doing God’s work, stated on more than one occasion that his mission in life to serve others was a calling, shaped by his good fortune in escaping Nazi Germany in the late 1930s. This coming week will mark the 79th anniversary of the infamous Nazi persecution campaign Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass,” an overnight campaign of tyranny against Jews which Okolica survived.
Rabbi Okolica’s flee from Germany was fraught with twists, turns and, ultimately, good fortune. Having managed to gain a visa to England, he was nevertheless detained at the Frankfort train station and spent the night in a Gestapo jail cell.
“He saw the beatings, heard all the screams, the blood-curdling cries,” says Daniel. “My mother’s father, who never made it out of Germany, mortgaged his home to the Gestapo to gain my father’s freedom.”
“God took care of me,” Rabbi Okolica would often say in later years. “I didn’t escape Germany to live my own life. I escaped because God commanded me to be his helper.”
Okolica arrived in New York City in 1940, and married his wife of more than 70 years, Lisbeth, the following year. He answered his calling in pulpits in New York, Washington and Florida before settling in New Britain in 1960, assuming leadership of Congregation Tephereth Israel on Winter Street.
Rabbi Okolica’s presence was felt in all walks of life within New Britain and beyond for the 50 years he was at the helm of the congregation. As if leading a synagogue of some 500 congregants in the then-bustling Hardware City wasn’t enough, he was omnipresent within numerous city and community organizations. He served as the Jewish chaplain at Central Connecticut State University, as well as for the City’s fire and police departments and numerous organizations, always offering a kind word, sage counsel or spiritual guidance.
The Rabbi and Lisbeth became renowned within the community and beyond for their Shabbat hospitality. The doors of their home would be open each Sunday to welcome friends and strangers from all walks of life and from near and far. The guests might include prominent community leaders or someone struggling to make ends meet – it did not matter to the Okolicas.
“It was a cavalcade of humanity,” Daniel recalls.
Shortly after relocating to New Britain, the Rabbi began visiting the Veteran’s Home and Hospital in Rocky Hill. Seeing the desperate help needed by so many veterans with alcohol and substance abuse issues, he waged a personal campaign to gain space at the facility to start a rehabilitation program, an effort that was not openly embraced by officials at the outset. The Rabbi was so devoted to the cause and helping veterans in need, he would often sleep at the facility overnight.
Today, the rehab program Rabbi Okolica fought so hard to establish has become the Connecticut VA’s Fellowship House, a fully staffed recovery support program that has helped thousands of veterans.
“He had a way of speaking to the hearts of all. Veterans felt he was someone who could hear them,” says former Connecticut Veterans Affairs Commissioner Linda Schwartz. “He was a pioneer. He got everybody thinking about how we could do this better.”
For nearly 40 years, Rabbi Okolica hosted the weekly “Jewish Faith” program locally produced by WVIT Channel 30. Former U.S. Congresswoman Nancy Johnson – who made her first public appearance on the show – recalled the Rabbi fondly in an interview with The Hartford Courant in 2003.
“Of all the religious leaders he was the most dogged about reaching across lines of faith to build a community,” she recalled. “Back when there were deep lines between Catholics and other Christians in New Britain, he was the one who knew that everyone had to come together. He was an activist and a unifier, profoundly accepting and loving.”
New Britain Herald Publisher Michael Schroeder, who came to New Britain in 2009, met the Rabbi through the Rotary Club and formed an immediate bond.
“I was taken by the wisdom he shared whenever he spoke. He brought a warmth to whatever room he was in, and I learned something important about life every time I heard him speak,” says Schroeder, a member of the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame Planning Committee.
The close, personal bonds with those from all walks of life that Rabbi Okolica was able to create during his lifetime are perfectly captured within the Immigrant Heritage Hall of Fame’s Class of 2017, through none other than fellow inductees Angelo Tomasso, Sr. and his son, Angelo, Jr. The Tomassos may have had far different backgrounds and lives than the Rabbi, but with their church, St. Ann’s, just a stone’s throw from the synagogue, they developed mutual admiration and a close friendship lasting many years.
“Our pastor held Rabbi Okolica in high regard, and when our church held a tribute for our pastor, the keynote speaker was the Rabbi,” said Angelo Tomasso, Jr.’s son, Michael Tomasso, in a 2011 interview with the Connecticut Jewish Ledger. “We would get a call from the Rabbi about a family in town in trouble and we would help them, together.”
While Rabbi Okolica’s passing just weeks ago has left a void in the community, his legacy of love for mankind is one that will live on, says Schroeder.
“It is safe to say that through his lifetime, Rabbi Okolica touched the lives of millions,” says Schroeder. “He was one of a kind, through the final days of his life.”
(Photos courtesy of the Jewish Historical Society of Greater Hartford.)