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Meet Rabbi Grussgott
August 31st, 2012
After half a century under the leadership of Rabbi Bernard Reichman, Congregation Anshai Lebowitz has hired a new rabbi, Ira Samuel Grussgott.
Rabbi Ira Samuel Grussgott
Born in Brooklyn, Grussgott grew up in the Munkacz Hasidic community. He received his basic Jewish education at Yeshivot Torah Voda’ath and Chaim Berlin. After graduating from Brooklyn College, he attended Yeshiva University, where he attained ordination and post-graduate degrees in Jewish philosophy and his certification at Y.U.’s Cantoral Training Institute. He also obtained certification in Clinical Pastoral Education from the Healthcare Chaplaincy Institute of New York City, and served as a hospice chaplain in Wilmington, Del.
Over the last two decades, he has served as spiritual leader of Congregations Shaare Shamayim and Shaar Hashomayim, the two largest traditional congregations in Philadelphia and Montreal respectively. He has most recently served as rabbi of Congregation Ezras Israel in Chicago. His wife Miriam is an educator with a master’s degree from McGill University. They are both children of Holocaust survivors, and they have four adult children: Suri, Moshe, Josh, and Leba.
For his first year at Anshai Lebowitz, he will continue to live in Chicago, where he is still in a chaplaincy program, and he will spend weekends and holidays in Mequon.
On Aug. 26, Grussgott spoke with freelance writer Susan Ellman for The Chronicle. Selected and edited excerpts of that conversation follow:
WJC: What made you decide to become a rabbi?
RIG: I really couldn’t make up my mind when I was young, and then it all came together. I had an insider’s view from early on because of my background and the fact that my father was executive director of a number of leading Orthodox congregations in Brooklyn.
I’ve always been interested in philosophy, and I had a yen to be on the stage. I saw my rabbi doing that as an orator.
I like to counsel people, to preach, to teach. I never saw it as a nine-to-five job. Becoming a rabbi was a wonderful way I could fulfill myself and be part of a community.
WJC: How do you see yourself shaping the congregation’s future?
RIG: I like the intimate nature of Congregation Anshai Lebowitz. It’s heymish. I like to believe that I’ve got a minimum of 20 more years of active service and committing to the congregation’s not only surviving but thriving.
We can’t have stagnation. Nostalgia is very sweet, but we’re not going to recreate the old Congregation Anshai Lebowitz. A lot of people are hung up on “Do we move to the left or the right?” We’re not going to move left or right, but forward and up, spiritually and with energy, true to Orthodox Jewish law, if not with veneration, at least with respect for the 50 years that are Rabbi Reichman’s legacy.
I don’t plan to make any radical changes, but to create a climate of inclusiveness and sensitivity. You can stand for tradition and also be inclusive of all people. Within Jewish law, there’s a great deal of flexibility. If we make changes, they will be consistent with Jewish law.
For the time being, we will keep the existing seating arrangement [of separate sections in the front for men and women, and mixed seating in the back]. There is a preference for separation when one is praying, but the law is flexible and open to interpretation. Some couples have always sat together and want to continue. We don’t want to turn away anyone.
WJC: What message do you have for the community here in Mequon?
RIG: People are actually looking for eclecticism and diversity. The market has become so “niched,” if there is such a word, and people have developed such a consumerist mentality.
I would want to tell people to think not so much of “what we can get” but “what we can contribute.” We would want you for your interest, your commitment, your advice, your interest, your willingness to be part of the Jewish community.
I’ve always been uncomfortable trying to compartmentalize by gender and age. Of course I want young people to be involved, but it’s not a Club Med. My vision is to have three or even four generations under the same roof. I don’t want to put the cart before the horse, but to make room for everybody. If you build it, they will come.
WJC: Do you have any special programs or classes you would like to initiate?
RIG: I would like to introduce classes that will prepare bar and bat mitzvahs, especially bat mitzvahs, to participate fully in the services, while within strict Orthodoxy.