The openly gay rabbi who’s working to change the face of Judaism

By not allowing her path to God to interfere with her sexuality, Lisa Grushcow ‘embraced both parts of her identity’ – and now, as Dan Bilefsky finds out, she’s working to make Judaism more inclusive for women

Dan Bilefsky
Sunday 21 July 2019 11:51 BST
Lisa Grushcow is working hard to make a difference in the Jewish community
Lisa Grushcow is working hard to make a difference in the Jewish community

When Rabbi Lisa Grushcow, the first openly gay rabbi of a large synagogue in Canada, was preparing to begin rabbinical school, she faced a daunting choice: love or serving God.

Her world was suddenly turned upside down in the late 1990s while she was studying religion at Oxford on a Rhodes scholarship, and fell in love with a woman she met at a conference. This posed a problem: the conservative rabbinical school she planned to attend did not ordain openly gay rabbis. Rather than abandoning her vocation, she opted instead to join the Jewish Reform movement – a liberal progressive denomination that accepts gay rabbis and same-sex marriage.

“Coming out,” she says, “brought me closer to God.”

“It was the first time in my life when being good at something and working hard weren’t enough to open the door,” says the bookish 44-year-old rabbi, who speaks with the soothing voice of someone used to softening life’s upheavals. “By following my calling and being true to myself, I was embracing both essential parts of my identity.”

Now divorced, and remarried with two daughters and a third child on the way, she says her struggles have helped shape her inclusive approach to Judaism during posts in New York City and in her current role as the first female senior rabbi at the 137-year-old Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a sprawling Reform synagogue in Montreal’s affluent Westmount neighbourhood.

Named one of “America’s most inspiring rabbis” by the influential Jewish publication The Forward, she has edited a seminal book on Judaism and sexuality, works to improve ties between Canadian Jews and Muslims; and counsels lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender Jews from Newfoundland to Mexico.

And while Judaism has a long history of trailblazers in gay and gender equality – the first female rabbi, Regina Jonas, was ordained in Berlin in 1935, and the Reform movement formally endorsed the ordination of gay clergy in 1990 – Grushcow is playing a leading role in breaking what she calls the “stained glass ceiling” in Canada, where senior female rabbis remain rare.

She observed that, in a historically patriarchal religion, “people expect their rabbi to be a stand-in for God, who they think looks like a guy with a beard sitting on a cloud – I don’t look like that.

“Being a divorced and lesbian rabbi and mom deepened my understanding of human experience,” she adds. “It broadened who I can relate to.”

She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community today

Rabbi Hara Person, the first top female executive in the North American Reform movement, the largest Jewish denomination in the United States, calls Grushcow “a leading light of the Reform movement” and a rabbi for the modern age.

“She exemplifies how a community can both embrace tradition and also adapt to who we are as a people and community today,” Person says.

Nevertheless, overcoming prejudices can be an occupational hazard for a gay, female rabbi. Stephen Yaffe, a former president of her temple, who was on the search committee that hired Grushcow in 2012, recalls that some congregants initially expressed concern that she could prove polarising.

“For some people, the fact that she is gay and female was a big deal, and some said, ‘This is not who we are,’” he recalls. But he says Grushcow had quickly convinced the doubters with her empathy, intellect and ability to connect with people. Before long, the temple’s benches were overflowing with young people.

Having the comic timing of a Borscht Belt comedian also helped. The rabbi recalled that a stranger recently made an appointment to ask her to adjudicate a family inheritance dispute. When the bemused rabbi asked, “Why me?” the woman replied, “Rabbis are free, and I didn’t want to pay a therapist or a lawyer.”

Her success at expanding Judaism’s tent was evident at a recent gala evening at the synagogue honouring her seven years’ service. Mark Fishman, a rabbi in the Orthodox tradition, which historically does not sanction gay relationships, observed that when it came to his own spiritual health, “Rabbi Grushcow is my rabbi.”

At the end of the evening, she and her pregnant wife, Shelley, 39, a digital marketing specialist, were taken by surprise when they were called to the bimah, the platform where the Torah is read.

As a cantor sang “Rainbow Connection,” the first song they danced to at their wedding, the couple waltzed. The audience, which included Holocaust survivors, gay students and several Muslim leaders, beamed.

In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identity

Born in Ottawa to a Conservative Jewish family and raised in Toronto, Grushcow credited her mother, a management consultant, and her father, the owner of a software development company, for instilling in her at a young age that girls could do anything.

Nevertheless, she recalls reading a Torah commentary at age 8 that called homosexuality an “abyss of depravity” and feeling a pang of recognition that “it was talking about me”.

After studying political science at McGill University in Montreal, she studied Judaism and Christianity in the Greco-Roman World at Oxford, where she earned a doctorate. In 2001, she married her first spouse, a female rabbinical student; two years later, Grushcow was ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York City. Upon graduation, she joined Congregation Rodeph Sholom, a prominent Reform synagogue on New York City’s Upper West Side, with 1,600 families. She stayed for nearly a decade – what she calls her coming-of-age as a rabbi.

It was a decidedly New York experience. In addition to officiating at hundreds of bar mitzvahs and weddings, she led a study group for Jewish therapists turning to Jewish teachings to counsel about addiction, death and sexual identity. After the 2008 financial crisis, she comforted investment bankers who had lost everything. Judaism, she stresses, is far more accepting than many people realised.

“Genesis is the best book ever on dysfunctional families,” she says. “Abraham almost sacrificed his son Isaac on a mountain – Sarah, his wife, must not have been happy with that.”

And while some Orthodox scholars argue that transgender identity is incompatible with Judaism since “God doesn’t make mistakes,” she counters that the Talmud, an ancient Jewish text, did not limit gender to male or female. “In the Jewish tradition, we aren’t born who we become,” she says.

Her time in liberal New York, she says, emboldened her with a strong sense of acceptance. “You can’t go 10 city blocks in New York without running into a lesbian rabbi,” she says.

A year after she moved to Montreal in 2012, her first marriage fell apart – a painful process, she says, that nevertheless taught her many lessons. She says she better understood that divorce has its own “stages of grief,” and experienced the insensitivity of a society that assumes everyone has a spouse. Dating also proved challenging. “As a rabbinic gay divorcée, no one was coming to me with matches,” she adds.

“I had a feeling of failure because I felt, as a rabbi, I am supposed to be an example,” she recalls. “One couple said to me: ‘How are we supposed to feel about marriage if even our rabbi is divorced?’”

Soon she found herself juggling being a rabbi and being the primary caregiver to two young daughters, now 9 and 15. “I can give a sermon on Yom Kippur to a thousand people,” she says. “Then I go home and my kids don’t listen to me at all.”

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She met her second wife, Shelley, online – “on – not Jdate!” she says with a laugh, referring to the Jewish dating site. Shelley was the first person on the site she messaged, and the two soon discovered a common love of used bookstores and ballroom dancing. They were married last year.

Shelley Grushcow observes that being a rabbi’s wife meant that family outings could be interrupted by funerals or hospital visits. But, she adds, “sometimes the community needs her more than we do”.

Lisa Grushcow’s inclusive approach was apparent on a recent day when she went to offer condolences to a family in mourning. There were not enough people to say kaddish, the prayer for the dead, so the rabbi rang doorbells in the apartment building, looking for worshippers to join them.

According to Orthodox Jewish tradition, 10 men – known as a minyan – are needed to say the mourner’s prayer, and several older women apologised that their husbands weren’t home. When the rabbi invited the women to join the minyan, she recalls, several had tears in their eyes.

“They felt for the first time that they counted,” she says.

© New York Times

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