Rabbi brings renewed vigor to conservative congregation in Columbia

March 22, 1998|By Dana Hedgpeth | Dana Hedgpeth,SUN STAFF

Standing stoically behind the podium is not the style of Rabbi Susan Grossman.

Every Friday, clapping her hands and singing, Grossman -- Columbia's first female rabbi -- leads the Beth Shalom congregation in prayers and study of the Torah. She reads passages from the Torah and challenges congregation members to speak out.

It is a renewed vigor for the 25-year-old congregation, Columbia's first free-standing synagogue. Grossman, who was one of the first female rabbis to graduate from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, will be officially installed today as the rabbi of the conservative congregation.

Rabbi Harold Kushner, author of "When Bad Things Happen to Good People" and a mentor to Grossman, will perform the installation. Rabbi Seymour Essrog, head of the National Rabbinical Assembly, will lead the invocation at the 4: 15 p.m. ceremony.

Members say that when Grossman arrived at the synagogue in September, she brought with her a spirit and drive that engendered a sense of community.

"It's the way she's able to make the congregation become engaged in learning," says Claudia Andorsky, vice president of the 260-member congregation. "The atmosphere of spirituality is much more relaxed. They don't have to know a lot about religion for her to get people involved and asking questions."

Grossman has been asking questions and challenging boundaries for most of her life.

Growing up in the Bronx -- her father worked as a fireman and her mother was a secretary -- Grossman became the first woman in her family to graduate from college. She decided to cover religion for Jewish publications.

After spending a year in Israel, she became one of 21 women to enter the rabbinical seminary in New York.

Being a woman and leader of a conservative congregation is a challenge, Grossman says.

"We [women] know we're benchmarks for the movement," she says. "There was a lot of concern putting us as rabbis, but I've changed Jewish history just by being a woman."

To many of her congregants, Grossman stands out when she wears a kippah, a traditional head covering, and a tallis, a prayer shawl, more common on men. These are sometimes seen as symbols of a stoic and stand-offish rabbi, Grossman said. Congregation members say Grossman is just the opposite.

"Rabbi Grossman generates an excitement among people," says Jane Goldberg, a Beth Shalom congregant. "There's a different feeling she conveys that tends to make people become more conscious of what they're doing."

Instead of lecturing, she invites people to question her readings from the Torah. She has started a study group for woman and encouraged adult bar mitzvahs and bat mitzvahs.

"She [Grossman] is a truly community-oriented person," says Rev. Victor Sawyer, pastor of Locust United Methodist Church.

In her office, surrounded with books on Jewish law and philosophy, she describes Jews as searching for more meaning in their religion. Beth Shalom -- and Columbia -- she says, is the right place for her to conduct that search.

"Every generation is looking for what it needs," she said. "In the 1940s through the 1960s, Jews were looking to become Americans. In the 1990s, they are trying to figure out what does it mean to be Jewish in a secular world."

It is this intense desire to learn more that attracts many members to the congregation.

"Jewish services typically are very intellectual, but Rabbi Grossman adds an emotional high," says Henry Rossman, a 19-year-long congregant. "She's very enthusiastic. She has an intelligent leadership style with an emotional fever."

Pub Date: 3/22/98

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