Appreciating religious traditions other than his own is a core value for Leonard Grossman, who stepped down from his second term as president of the Community of Congregations on Jan. 30.
He used to joke that his was an interfaith marriage — his wife grew up in a reform synagogue, and he went to Hebrew school at the conservative Anshe Emet Synagogue on the North Side of Chicago. The way they resolved the issue was to become members of both West Suburban Temple Har Zion (conservative) on one side of Harlem Avenue and Oak Park Temple (reform) on the other.
The former teacher-turned-lawyer for the Department of Justice tells of his first foray into another religion with a smile.
“I was about seven,” he recalled, “when a couple of buddies and I snuck into a big Presbyterian church near my home. We crept around the place. It had a gym on the second floor and a big sanctuary. It was the first time I had ever been in a Christian church, my first ecumenical experience.”
Young Leonard would be exposed to a lot more of the Christian tradition before he graduated from high school. In the 1950s, the culture in American schools was much more overtly Christian.
“‘Little Brown Church in the Vale’ was one of the songs in my high school graduation program,” he recalled. The way he coped with being in a foreign culture, as it were, was to join in.
“I became an expert at decorating Christmas trees,” he said.
“I learned not to exclude people because I would then automatically exclude myself,” is how he explained his childhood response to being different, which sometimes even resulted in being beat up. Being a minority — and at times the only Jew in his public school class — motivated him to be open to what other religious traditions had to offer.
For example, during his junior year at Northern Illinois University, he became involved in the University Religious Council, NIU’s interfaith organization, and eventually served as president. While in DeKalb, a friend invited him to a midnight Christmas Eve service. The year was 1966. He found the experience so meaningful and moving that “except for a couple years when I was out of the country, I’ve gone there for Christmas ever since.”
After moving to Oak Park in 1986 he became involved in the Community of Congregations (CoC) and was elected president in 1999. People like Rev. Don McCord, Rev. Ed Hiestand and Rabbi Gary Gerson he associates with the creativity and social activism of those days.
“In our bimonthly meetings,” he recalled, “we would have, in addition to a program, a business meeting in which we would identify issues and become a forum in which a variety of responses could be heard. At that time, the CoC was very concerned with social action. PADS started there. The food pantry began at Faith Willard Church (now Cornerstone Church). Cluster Tutoring — all these things came out of it. But as we got into the 2000s people weren’t going to meetings. They maintained the programs we started, but [CoC as a forum] kind of faded. The organization seemed to be more focused on programs and lost interest in hot-button issues.
“Then two years ago I was called to return as president. It was a real honor to be asked to come back. As president, one thing I wanted to do was to re-energize the sort of thing we were doing around the turn of the century. That’s why it was so exciting to see how the annual meeting went on Jan. 30. Following up on the meeting in the fall, we broke into three working groups, each with resource people and flip charts. Each group wrote down ideas in different areas: radical hospitality; empowering youth; economic justice; how to do this on an individual basis and on an institutional basis. I’m very pleased that Sally Iberg has taken over as president because she is leading CoC in the same direction.”
Identity and boundaries
As much as respecting the faith traditions of his neighbors is important to Grossman, equally important is the maintenance of clear boundaries and religious identity. “We don’t try to do interfaith prayer at the Community Thanksgiving Service,” he said. “We have representatives of different religions say prayers from their own tradition, but even that is a problem.” It’s a problem, he pointed out, because it’s hard to be true to your own religious identity without offending somebody.
Before the OP-RF ecumenical group evolved into the Community of Congregations, it was called the Council of Churches. With the admission of Jews and Baha’is, the churches in town would worship together in a community Good Friday service.
“How do you have a Jewish Good Friday service?” he asked rhetorically. So Thanksgiving seemed a better occasion on which to try to find common ground, but even then, it’s been tricky.
“I don’t ever want to pretend,” Grossman declared, “that all religions are the same in a mushy interfaith pluralism that says there’s no difference. You don’t gain by getting a sander out and pretending we’re all the same.”
Rather than trying to pray together, Grossman would rather focus on what all religious traditions do have in common, which is ethics. Thanksgiving works better for an interfaith event, he contends, because “there’s a shared basic understanding of what thanksgiving is. There’s a shared set of values which can be expressed.”
Similar to what Eboo Patel does in his Interfaith Youth Core, Grossman prefers building interfaith relationships by serving together rather than by comparing beliefs or trying to pray together. “In the CoC,” he said, “we do interfaith through works, through social action.”
Grossman began assuming this posture toward people of other religions when he was a child. He enjoyed helping decorate the Christmas tree at school but never pretended that he was a Christian. That’s one reason he sometimes got beat up.
To explain how he attempts to integrate the maintenance of clear boundaries regarding his own religious identity with respect for the beliefs and practices of people from other faith traditions, he refers to his attendance at Christmas Eve services.
“It’s not that I was celebrating Christmas,” he explained. “I was joining my friends in their joy in celebrating their holiday. It’s the same thing as when I helped decorate the tree in elementary school. I didn’t want Christmas in my house. I know a lot of interfaith couples who have a Christmas tree, but I wasn’t comfortable with that.”
When he attends Christmas Eve services, Grossman said, “I stand when the congregation stands but I won’t kneel, and I leave some words out of the carols. I don’t pretend to be a Christian. When my father was in elementary school, his class would sometimes sing, ‘Yes Jesus loves me.’ He told me he used to sing: ‘Yes, Jesus loves meat.'”
He maintains his identity as a conservative Jew, even with membership in a reform synagogue.
“I never try to be something else. My wife used to accuse me of being patronizing to reform Judaism,” he confessed and added, “I’ve learned to appreciate it in ways that I didn’t before.”
Grossman summed up his approach to interfaith relations in a way that echoes a fellow Jew, Martin Buber, who contended that “all real living is meeting.”
“I think it’s terribly important that we get to know each other,” he said, “and learn to work together with the recognition that we are different.”