Rabbi Rafael Grossman, for nearly three decades the spiritual leader of the largest Orthodox congregation in the United States, left his Southern synagogue recently for a small, struggling synagogue here because of one five-year-old boy.
Rabbi Grossman, visiting his son’s home in Teaneck, N.J., last year, heard his grandson say, "I think I know who you are."
The rabbi was stunned. Bi-monthly visits to his children in the areas of Boston and New York would no longer be enough. The grandchildren had to know bubbe and zaide.
Rafael Grossman and his wife Shirley would leave Memphis, Tenn., where they had lived 28 years. That’s where Rabbi Grossman had helped build Baron Hirsch Synagogue into a 850-member congregation, where he established a singles program drawing hundreds of unmarried Jews from across the country; where he was a leader of the Modern Orthodox movement and where he was on first-name basis with governors and members of Congress.
In January, the Grossmans arrived in Manhattan.
Rabbi Grossman is the new spiritual leader at the West Side Institutional Synagogue, a once-major synagogue that has experienced a decline in recent years, from a height of some 700 members two generations ago to about 150 when he arrived.
"I’ve always needed a tremendous challenge," the rabbi says, sitting in the synagogue study whose empty bookshelves await his shipment of personal holy texts. "This is the biggest challenge of my career."
Rabbi Grossman, 67, bears a striking resemblance to the late actor Vincent Gardenia. He holds his hands clasped under his chin, slowly answering questions, betraying neither a Southern accent nor the nasal twang of his native Lakewood, N.J.
"I had planned on retiring," he says. "We went to Memphis because of our children." The Grossmans left Long Branch, N.J., where the rabbi had served as a pulpit rabbi 13 years, after the death of the couple’s oldest daughter, then 17. The four remaining children needed a change of scenery, so they went south. "We moved this time because of our children." To be nearer to his kids and grandkids, he would move to the New York area, maybe for a job in academia or with a national Jewish organization.
Then the West Side Institutional Synagogue contacted him, through a third party. A year after Rabbi Moshe Morduchowitz left the synagogue on West 76th Street, the position of spiritual leader remained open.
Rabbi Grossman would rebuild the congregation spiritually, as philanthropist Sam Domb, who is renovating several Orthodox synagogues on the Upper West Side, is helping to rebuild it physically. Rabbi Grossman talks about starting singles programs and youth activities, projects for the elderly and an outreach to the unaffiliated. His goal: to fill the 700-seat sanctuary, which rarely has a capacity crowd on Shabbat these days, and to restore the synagogue’s luster.
The rabbi has made a decidedly low-key entrance.
"Rabbi Grossman didn’t want people here to feel like he’s abandoning them," says Rabbi Dovid Kupinsky, education director at Baron Hirsch who is now serving as interim spiritual leader. "He had the opportunity to go to very prestigious shuls in New York, and he didn’t. He’s arriving to be with his children and grandchildren."
Through word of mouth, attendance at non-bar mitzvah Shabbat morning services at the West Side Institutional Synagogue has already risen by 100, to 150; the number of students at a weekly Torah class has grown from three to 20; and daily morning minyans have returned.
"The word is getting out," says Risa Calmenson, a member of the synagogue since 1984. "Because of his reputation," all ages are coming. "He’s great with a crowd."
Judy and Joseph Packin, Upper West Siders who were synagogue members "a long time ago," went to hear Rabbi Grossman one Shabbat at their son’s suggestion. They kept going back, and joined West Side Institutional Synagogue three weeks later. "Just because of him," Judy Packin says of the rabbi. "He’s tolerant of every denomination of Jew."
Judy Packin tells of non-Orthodox Jews who show up at Rabbi Grossman’s Saturday afternoon classes, after a workout at the nearby JCC, dressed in shorts and bathing suits.
"We have spread the word to many of our friends," she says. "I have sought a place [for religious inspiration] on the West Side for some time. I have found my niche."
"They want to hear what the rav has to say," synagogue president David Ohayon, using the traditional Hebrew term for a rabbi. "He’s spiritually uplifting, mentally uplifting."
"We’ve put a passion into the davening," Rabbi Grossman boasts. He doesn’t usually lead the services, but at his urging, he says, the chazzan or shaliach tzibur at the head of the congregation is injecting livelier melodies, more spirit.
One question remains: Can Rabbi Grossman duplicate in Manhattan the success he experienced in heimish Memphis?
"It can happen in New York, too," he says. "One thousand people aren’t different than 10 people": all looking for a friendly face and a warm environment in which to pray is the same north or south of the Mason-Dixon Line. "It’s just what New York needs: a small community environment."
Baron Hirsch, Rabbi Grossman admits, was "an anomaly." Although Orthodox, it attracted members of the non-Orthodox community who eventually became observant. Over the years, he officiated at the funerals of 1,500 synagogue members. "We had to replace 1,500 people who died."
"He’s terribly missed," says Rabbi Kupinsky. The Memphis congregation gave Rabbi Grossman the title Rabbi Emeritus, retaining his connection. "He’s a doer. He’s going to be involved with the Jewish world on a much higher level" in New York, Rabbi Kupinsky says.
"I know New York intimately," Rabbi Grossman says. While living in Memphis, he came here regularly, meeting Jewish leaders and politicians. Now that he’s a New Yorker, he goes to Teaneck once or twice a week. Now his grandson recognizes him. "He and I have developed a real tight relationship," the rabbi says.