Rabbi Jay Brickman, founder of Congregation Sinai, who had prolific interests and touched many lives, died Friday, Jan. 7, 2022. He was 97.
Rabbi Brickman was a forever student, a humorist, and a counselor to others, who felt strongly that God must be central to Jewish thought. He never stopped pursuing his passions, right up to the Bible study class he attended hours before he was taken to the emergency room in the days before his death.
Rabbi Brickman held a master’s degree in Bible from University of Wisconsin-Madison, a master of Hebrew Letters, and an honorary doctor of divinity from the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
He was born in New York City on Oct. 19, 1924. He tried medical school but didn’t care for it, then followed his heart and became a Reform rabbi.
He became a chaplain for the U.S. Army, after World War II.
He was a founding rabbi in 1951 for Temple Israel Reform Congregation of Staten Island, which is today the only Reform synagogue in the New York City borough. He met his wife Rita there, may her memory be a blessing. She was president of the sisterhood.
Rabbi Brickman later became the founding rabbi of Fox Point’s Congregation Sinai, in 1955. He became its rabbi emeritus in the 1990s. The Reform synagogue continues today under the spiritual leadership of Rabbi David Cohen.
Rabbi Brickman lived in his Fox Point house from 1955 to 2022. For many years, he personally taught each bar mitzvah boy at his home.
He spent his decades deeply involved in a dizzying array of pursuits. He was an Eagle Scout. He played mandolin. He studied singing. He read plays at the JCC. He was active with the Democratic Party. He supported Milwaukee’s socialist mayor. He published three books. He wrote daily one-liners on Twitter called, “A DOODLE A DAY by RABBI JAY.”
Here’s one, which he posted to Twitter in 2020:
“I continue to eat Total for breakfast
in remembrance of my wife Rita,
who always ate Total for breakfast.”
Here’s another, from one year ago:
“When I have departed this world and God asks me what I have accomplished, I will advise Him that I wrote and published 1600 poetry doodles.”
He was funny. He put on comedy skits. Not that he needed it, but he took a comedy class locally, always looking for more to learn in a social setting.
“I came up from Chicago for his ‘graduation’ from the class, which was him up on stage doing a gig,” recalled Harriet “Haje” Black, his daughter.
He was the heart and soul of a Saturday morning Torah study class at Congregation Sinai, filling a room both with laughter and learning. The class has attracted people from throughout the community. According to one biographical account, it was the first synagogue Saturday morning Torah class – and many others followed.
Rabbi Brickman and wife Rita were summer residents of Baileys Harbor in Door County.
He gave sermons at the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of Door County, where he also taught a summer Bible class. He studied basket weaving in Door County for years.
“I have all these baskets all over my house,” Haje said. “He had a whole other life up in Door County.”
Nationally, he served on the editorial board for the Reform movement’s High Holy Day prayer book (Machzor), the “Gates of Repentance.”
Rabbi Brickman was well trained as a Jungian, or one who studied Carl Jung, said his son, Dr. Cliff K. Brickman. The Swiss psychiatrist had worked with Sigmund Freud, though Jung showed a more spiritual side.
Haje remembers Rabbi Brickman as a good man.
“He had a very good heart and always wanted to do good and help people. He really did. He was always present for his congregants and his students and the people who looked up to him and who needed him, always,” Haje said. “He lived the life he wanted. He lived true to himself.”
Rabbi Jay Brickman is preceded in death by his beloved wife, Rita (nee Warschauer) and cherished son, Andy. Dear father of Dr. Cliff K. Brickman and Harriet Jean “Haje” Black. Further survived by his Congregation Sinai family of colleagues, countless congregants, and students he mentored over his many years of teaching and dedicated service, other relatives and friends.
Burial at Greenwood Cemetery was held privately for the family. Heritage Funeral Homes assisted the family.