Local Rabbi To Lead Services At Late Father’s Synagogue

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Rabbi Harry Nelson with son, David

David Nelson, rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth Shalom in Oak Park, will disprove the old adage “You can’t go home again” this holiday season. He’ll return to the Bridgeport, Conn., synagogue where he grew up and where his father served as rabbi for 30 years to lead High Holiday services.

Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Bridgeport was founded in 1909. Nelson’s father, Harry Nelson, arrived there in 1934 at the age of 26 as a new graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary. Except for four years as a U.S. Army chaplain during World War II and six months in Belem, Brazil, Harry Nelson spent his entire professional life at Rodeph Sholom.

He oversaw the building of a new synagogue in 1949 and watched the congregation grow to be one of the largest in New England. He served the congregation until 1964, when he suffered a fatal heart attack at the age of 56.

Under his leadership, Rodeph Sholom produced 15 rabbis, three rebbetzins, one cantor and 13 Jewish educators. According to community leaders, Rabbi Harry Nelson was beloved for his warmth, his strong leadership and his gentle guidance.

Today, 52 years after Harry Nelson’s death, the congregation is at a crossroads. With only 300 member families and no rabbi, they searched for someone to lead High Holiday services.

David Nelson

Don Sherman, a longtime member and Bridgeport native, recommended that the congregation seek out David Nelson.

The younger Rabbi Nelson, now 77, graduated from the Jewish Theological Seminary in 1967, served two years in a pulpit in Rio de Janeiro and three years as an assistant rabbi at Chizuk Amuno in Baltimore before coming to Detroit in 1972. He was the rabbi at Beth Shalom in Oak Park for 36 years.

Since retiring from Beth Shalom in 2008, Nelson has been a part-time rabbi for Temple Beth El in Bay City and is presently in his sixth year as rabbi of B’nai Shalom in Benton Harbor. Rabbi Nelson has also devoted time and energy in chaplaincy work with Jewish prisoners.

Nelson is excited about returning to the congregation where he grew up.

“In 1963, my father looked in as I was leading a youth service. But he never saw me in a pulpit because he died three years before I graduated,” Nelson said.

“Because of my wonderful memories of growing up at Rodeph Sholom, I’m excited by the challenge and opportunity. It’s a rare opportunity to go home again.”

By Barbara Lewis | Contributing Writer

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