The scene: a crowded Friday night at the Temple Emanu-el-Beth Sholom in Westmount. Excitement is in the air as the huge main sanctuary fills up.
This is no ordinary Sabbath service. The archbishop of Montreal, Most Rev. Christian Lépine, is in the audience, as are Protestant clergy and U.S. consul-general Andrew Parker. Even the Orthodox-trained Rabbi Adam Sheier of Westmount’s other major synagogue, the Shaar Hashomayim, is in a front row.
They have come for the official installation of senior Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, succeeding the retiring Leigh Lerner. This is a first on many fronts, another important sign that “the times they are a changin’ ” in the male-dominated culture of Montreal’s community of 90,000 Jews.
Part of the excitement surrounds her background. Born in Ottawa, raised in Toronto, Grushcow was educated at McGill and Oxford universities, where she was a Rhodes scholar.
At McGill, she earned an honours degree in political science, with a minor in Jewish Studies. Her master’s studies focused on Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman world; her doctoral thesis was a study of rabbinic interpretations of the now-archaic procedure when a man suspected his wife of adultery. It was published as Writing the Wayward Wife: Rabbinic Interpretations of Sotah (brill).
At the installation, superlatives flowed abundantly. Dr. Paul Leszner, president of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism, said Grushcow was “capable, caring, charismatic and committed,” possessing “extraordinary teaching skills.”
Victor Goldbloom, who chaired the search committee, called her “a very special human being.”
That was but the beginning: Grushcow is the first female rabbi to be put in charge of such a large congregation in Canada—the oldest liberal synagogue in the country, with 982 families—and the first to be part of a “two-mom” family.
Sharing the stage with Grushcow was her partner, Rabbi Andrea Myers, described by Rabbi Robert Levine of Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York City as “brilliant and irreverent.”
They have two school-age children, Ariella and Alice. A convert from her Protestant upbringing, Myers described her transformation in The Choosing: A Rabbi’s Journey from Silent Nights to High Holy Days (Rutgers University Press).
Grushcow praised Myers as “a tremendously talented educator, author and rabbi who had helped her become “a better rabbi, a better human being.”
In personal conversation, and more formally, Grushcow is a brilliant speaker, articulate and thoughtful, who weaves the personal, historical and theological in an empathetic talking-to rather than talking-down mode.
With a well-balanced choir, solos by musical director Rachelle Schubert and gently flowing flute/harp/keyboard accompaniment, with more English than in other synagogues, the service was accessible and joyful.
The accolades continued as Levine, who was Grushcow’s boss in New York for nine years, said she had made “an indelible mark on people’s lives. … Her soul is as brilliant as her head.”
He congratulated her for “breaking through the glass ceiling”—that intangible barrier that prevents women, or minorities, from rising to the top.
Grushcow disclosed she had been raised in the Conservative tradition and moved to Reform with its more liberal outlook.
Rising to such a prominent position in the clerical hierarchy would not have been possible without demands for gender equality from trailblazers in the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community, she said.
Signaling her intention to be an activist rabbi, Grushcow denounced the arrest in Jerusalem last month of Anat Hoffman while she was leading a women’s prayer service at the Western Wall, in violation of Israeli law.
Grushcow underlined her commitment to welcome “all comers, all faiths” to the tent of Reform Judaism if they intend to build Jewish families. She returned to the idea of the “stained-glass ceiling.”
“In the U.S., there are lots of women who are assistant rabbis, but there are very few who are senior rabbis of large congregations. No matter how liberal the congregation, there is still this perception that you kind of want this father figure who is taking care of things, who is big, tall, powerful.”
Gender stereotypes remain a major obstacle to advancement for women in Jewish clergy roles, but this did not appear to have been a problem at Temple Emanu-el, where the senior rabbi, the cantor and last year’s outreach rabbi, Julia Appel, are all women.
In her speech on the eve of Yom Kippur, Grushcow said she was drawn to Reform Judaism because it is “open to questions, and is honest about the world we inhabit.”
“We have left the ghetto far behind, and we don’t look back. We come here freely. Our responsibility is to learn and it is in our hands to choose.
“To be a rabbi in this world is not to coerce, but to teach, to find ways to open doors to those looking to come in. And to be a religious Jew in this world is not to follow a set of 16th-century rules—or not follow it, and feel guilty—but to live in a way that is shaped by Jewish wisdom and true to the heart of who we are.”
On a seeminly lighter note, she said more “joy, not just oy is essential to Jewish life.”
IN LE MOOD FOR CHANGE
In October, Rabbi Lisa Grushcow appeared in a panel of female clergy as part of le Mood series of talks on changing times in the community.
Apart from her partner, Rabbi Andrea Myers, those in the panel include Cantor Heather Batchelor of Dorshei Emet, Temple musical director Rachelle Schubert, and Rabbi Sherril Gilbert of the B’Nai Or Jewish Renewal congregation.
Batchelor said that when she was in cantorial school, the majority was female, yet she was refused a cantorial position because she was told the congregation already had a female rabbi.
“They felt it would be too many women to have a woman rabbi and a woman cantor.”