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Tuesday, July 22, 2014

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Spiritual switch: rabbis trade places, return to their roots

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Rabbi Lisa Grushcow

In a society where religious denominations are often at odds, two spiritual leaders representing distinct streams of Judaism are proving that getting along is not only possible, it’s enriching and mutually beneficial.

Toronto native Rabbi Lisa Grushcow is now senior rabbi of Montreal’s Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a 132-year-old Reform congregation with approximately 900 member families. She was the first woman named to lead a major Canadian congregation when she was hired in 2012.

Ex-Montrealer Rabbi Jarrod Grover is the senior rabbi of Toronto’s Beth Tikvah Synagogue, a 50-year-old Conservative congregation with about 1,200 member families.

Recently, the two Rabbis concluded it would be a wonderful idea to switch pulpits in a “sermon exchange” and to connect with each other’s communities. So in March, Rabbi Grushcow was invited to Beth Tikvah’s Sisterhood Shabbat as a scholar-in-residence, where she spoke to the congregation on multiple occasions.

And last month, Rabbi Grushcow had the opportunity to return Rabbi Grover’s invitation and welcome him as the guest speaker at Temple Emanu-El’s Friday night service. In anticipation of Shavuot, when Jews celebrate the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, Rabbi Grover spoke on the theme of “The Lesson of the Broken Tablets” and the tension between tradition, law and peoplehood.

Both grew up at each other’s congregations. Rabbi Grushcow, who celebrated her bat mitzvah at Beth Tikvah, still recalls the sunlight shining through the window when she read from the Torah, among other memories.

“I remember my parents going to committee meetings, attending junior congregation and singing in the children’s choir,” she said.

“I hadn't been back to Beth Tikvah for many years,” she added. “When I stood there at the age of 12, the role of women was being reduced, and now it is expanding. It was very moving seeing women take a leadership role with enthusiasm, skill and deep commitment. To speak from the pulpit in this context, so many years later, was a great honour.”

In March, Rabbi Grushcow delivered her keynote sermon on Shabbat morning on the theme of journeys, and emphasized that while our lives are constantly in flux, we are perpetually guided by the wisdom from our pasts.

“There was a special pride [among congregants],” Rabbi Grover, right, said of Rabbi Grushcow’s visit, “that someone who grew up at Beth Tikvah has become such an accomplished Jewish leader.”

For Rabbi Grushcow, the experience was “a joy to see how the community is thriving under Jarrod’s leadership, and how much dedication he is bringing to his role. “

As a youth, Rabbi Grover blew the shofar for Temple Emanu-El, volunteered at its Torah School and served on various synagogue committees.

“My synagogue community at temple was instrumental in my decision to become a congregational rabbi,” Rabbi Grover said. “It is a sacred place for me that evokes wonderful memories.

“The real pleasure I had in returning was being able to spend time with Lisa, and learn from this extraordinary teacher and colleague whom Temple can proudly call its rabbi,” he said. “We have different denominational backgrounds and different denominational affiliations, but we share a passion to serve the Canadian Jewish community and ensure a relevant thriving Judaism for the next generation.”

Rabbi Grushcow echoed Rabbi Grover’s sentiments. “Our journeys are different, without a doubt. Yet here we are together, guided by the wisdom of the past, building holy communities. The message is that there is more that unites us than divides us. As rabbis, I think we both want people to find their Jewish communities. Denominational lines don’t matter as much as finding a synagogue with which to connect.

“I think it is evidence of God’s sense of humour that I have ended up at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, where Rabbi Grover grew up, and he has ended up at Beth Tikvah, where I was raised,” she added. “Yet the differences in our journeys show that there is a home for everyone in Jewish life, even if we don't end up where we started.”

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