As Adath Israel Congregation prepared for its yearlong dual anniversary celebration — its 90th and Rabbi Daniel Grossman’s 25th — Grossman looked back on his rabbinate, emphasizing his focus on welcoming people with disabilities, commitment to adult education, and willingness to go in creative new directions.
When Grossman arrived at Adath Israel, the synagogue was still on Bellevue Avenue in Trenton, but had bought land in Lawrenceville. “It was clear to me if I became the rabbi, I knew that my biggest responsibility would be to help move a synagogue that had been for years in Trenton, create a new identity, and continue the old identity,” he said.
This fortuitous arrival enabled him to work with the design committee to create “the most accessible house of worship anywhere,” said Grossman.
As a result, the one-story building includes a ramp to the bima that all congregants use, special cradles that allow someone in a wheelchair to take out the Torah scroll, and an award-winning resource room, managed by Sharon Brooks.
“We have all sorts of unique individuals of all ages” in his congregation, said Grossman.
He quoted a congregant with special needs: “It feels like I’m part of a real community, not a selected community of people who can get in and out the door.”
Grossman said he is especially appreciative of his congregation’s willingness to let him travel to outside Jewish settings to share his knowledge about integrating those with special needs.
Another major piece of his rabbinate is his commitment to adult education. The synagogue has classes four days a week as well as an adult bar/bat mitzva program that runs for two to two-and-a-half years.
A third hallmark of his time at Adath Israel is creativity. “I’m willing to put in ideas and see if they work,” he said.
One big success has been his transformation of the traditional mitzva project connected to the bar/bat mitzva observance. “It can be a mitzva project, but it doesn’t have to be; it can be a creative project of their own choosing,” said Grossman.
Explaining his rationale, he said, “The training for a bar/bat mitzva is the same for everybody — you go through a certain regimen. I think it is equally important at that age that a youngster has to be able to say, ‘I am different, I am unique, I am who I am.’”
Grossman also changed the confirmation program. Instead of weekly classes, he explained, teens meet once a month and do activities together — from making bag lunches for the Trenton Area Soup Kitchen to visiting Jewish-related museums in Washington, DC, to spending a day with the elderly at Greenwood House in Ewing.
Another popular activity has been the Shabbat seder, which Adath Israel offers about four times a year. The ritual integrates the Friday night service and meal, along with guest speakers, like Rabbi Jonathan Porath, an expert on Jews in the former Soviet Union.
“What do Jews most like to do?” Grossman asked, and then answered his own question: “Be at a seder.”
Grossman grew up in a Philadelphia neighborhood hopping with synagogues and Jewish activities. His rabbi, Alex Goldman, who, coincidentally, had married his parents as a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, was an important early influence. In his sermons at the family’s Conservative synagogue, West Oak Lane Jewish Community Center, Goldman eschewed the prevalent “frontal” approach, said Grossman. “He was using sermon dialogues where people talked, responded, and interacted.”
After confirmation study at Gratz College and then a junior year abroad at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, including study at the Mercaz ha-Rav Kook yeshiva, Grossman returned from Israel observing Shabbat and thinking he would become Orthodox. Once he decided to become a rabbi, though, a realization about his extended family turned him in a different direction.
With one brother, two male cousins, and 15 female ones, he noticed the discrepancy in how men and women were treated. “It suddenly dawned on me — all of my [female] cousins had bat mitzvas and read Torah beautifully, and after the bat mitzva they were told essentially, ‘See you when you get married and have kids.’ It drove me crazy, and I decided to go to RRC” — the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College — “mostly because of the issue of women.”
While at RRC, Grossman started to think about his own impaired hearing — he can’t hear out of his right ear. He noticed that the Rochester Institute of Technology in upstate New York had a division known as the National Technical Institute for the Deaf. “They had a Hillel, but the rabbi didn’t know sign language,” he said. So he offered to learn sign language and fly up weekends to be a Hillel rabbi. They hired him, and then he took a summer “ulpan” in sign language and flew to Rochester once or twice a month for four years.
After graduating, it was clear to Grossman that outreach to people with special needs would be part of any pulpit he had. In Scranton, he got an assistant rabbi job near Pennsylvania’s State School for The Deaf. After meeting his wife, Elayne Robinson Grossman, who was working on a doctorate in Jewish music at New York University (and who now is musical director of the Sharim v’Sharot Jewish choir), he wanted to be closer and moved to Staten Island, where he spent another five years. He later took a job as second rabbi at Temple Sinai in Dresher, Pa. He was there for three years, then came to Adath Israel.
Grossman’s innovations say a lot about Adath Israel, he said. “This works because it is a community that cares about this,” said Grossman. “It was very clear to me in moving from place to place until Adath became my home — I had to find the right balance, where special needs were welcomed, adult education encouraged, and the community willing to try new things, but enough stability where we have a daily minyan on Mondays and Thursdays, and lots of active, traditional Judaism.
“And that combination is great!”