MONTREAL — As a former Rhodes Scholar who also has a PhD from Oxford, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow might naturally have chosen the life of an academic.
As a proud gay woman, that might have been the easier route.
“But as soon as I got a taste of the congregational rabbinate, I knew it was what I wanted,” said the Canadian-born Rabbi Grushcow, who will become the senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom July 1, succeeding Rabbi Leigh Lerner who is retiring.
She is not only the first female senior rabbi at the 130-year-old temple, but of any large congregation in Canada comprising more than 1,000 member families.
Rabbi Grushcow is also Canada’s first openly gay congregational rabbi. She will be coming to Montreal with her spouse, Rabbi Andrea Myers, and their two young daughters.
Trailblazer, however, is not a label Rabbi Grushcow cares to trumpet.
“I hope I will not be regarded as a female rabbi or a gay rabbi,” she said in an interview. “I am here to be a rabbi. I think people quickly respond to you for who you are when you are at home in your own skin.
“We may raise some eyebrows, but we were received with warmth,” she added, referring to her visit last month to the temple to be formally introduced.
She could have stayed in New York, where since 2003 she has been an associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a historic temple with about 1,700 members on Manhattan’s Upper West Side.
She and her spouse are active in gay rights issues in New York, and lobbied New York State for the legalization of same-sex marriage, which was enacted last June.
Rabbi Myers, who was raised a Lutheran in Long Island, N.Y., is the author of the 2011 memoir The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days.
But the opportunity to lead the temple, Montreal’s sole Reform congregation, was one Rabbi Grushcow could not pass up. Born in Ottawa and raised in Toronto (she is “just under 40”) – which will make her a rarity as a Canadian leading a major shul in her own country – Rabbi Grushcow earned her undergraduate degree at McGill University in the 1990s and became enchanted with Montreal and its strong Jewish community.
“You don’t see this kind of Jewish life in many places. It may be a lot smaller than New York, but I do not feel that Montreal is lacking at all.” The temple announced her appointment Dec. 1.
The couple’s union was sanctified in New York in 2001, and, in 2003, soon after Ontario legalized same-sex marriage, they went to Kingston, where they were married by Rabbi Justin Lewis, then of the Reform Iyr Ha-Melech Congregation.
It was also the year Rabbi Grushcow was ordained at Hebrew Union College in New York.
Having a spouse who is also a rabbi (she was ordained at New York’s Academy for Jewish Religion), Rabbi Grushcow feels is fortunate, because she intimately understands the job.
Rabbi Myers is not expected to play a specific role at the Temple, although she likely will be looking for teaching opportunities.
Rabbi Grushcow, whose parents and other relatives live in Toronto, was raised in the Conservative movement and attended Beth Tikvah Synagogue. While at McGill, she went to the Reconstructionist Congregation Dorshei Emet. She moved to the Reform movement while in England.
Her impression of her new congregation, which has just over 1,000 member families, is that it is “dynamic and diverse.” A goal is to make it even more inclusive. As its new president Stephen Yaffe noted, the congregation is still large, but it is aging.
Led by Rabbi Lerner for 23 years, the temple is liberal. Same-sex and interfaith marriages are performed there, if there is a commitment to create a Jewish home, (although its rabbis do not co-officiate with clergy of other faiths, a policy she will continue), and LGBT and mixed couples are welcome.
“As the only Reform congregation, the temple is in a unique position to open doors to those who do not have a place elsewhere in the community,” Rabbi Grushcow said.
“The Bible speaks of Abraham and Sarah’s tent being open on four sides. That’s a fitting image of offering different ways in.”
Rabbi Gruschow’s colleague will be Rabbi Julia Appel, who joined the temple last summer as full-time outreach rabbi.
Rabbi Grushcow has a keen interest in interfaith relations (her academic research was in the beginnings of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism), and will be back March 28 to speak at national Christian-Jewish consultation event at McGill.
She believes it’s important for “progressive” religions to have a voice in Quebec where secularism is so highly valued and religion has become “a straw man.”
She also looks forward to forging ties with her rabbinic colleagues of other denominations, as she has in New York.
Encouraging Jewish learning is another of her priorities, but Rabbi Grushcow says no one should be intimidated by her scholarly background. “There’s an old saying: People need to know you care before they care about what you know.’”
She does hope to guide those who want to become more literate in a Judaism that’s relevant to the modern world or who are attracted to an intellectual pursuit of the religion. “I’m a great believer in lifelong learning,” she said.
She feels suited to the congregational pulpit, because she likes people and values the pastoral role as much as the teaching one. “At Rodeph Sholom, the rabbis and cantors are really involved with people’s lives. It is sacred work to be able to be with people at those moments.”
By all accounts, Rabbi Grushcow’s congeniality was appreciated by temple members during her visit. “Although she comes with exceptionally impressive credentials, it is the genuine warmth of her personality and her approachable nature that is winning over everyone she meets,” said temple communications director Heidi Reinblatt.
“In my first year, I expect to watch and learn, to have conversations with congregants and leaders. I want to respect where they want to go,” Rabbi Gruscow said.
“I come from a community where the building is always full of people of all ages and who have come by different ways. I hope to bring that kind of energy here.”