How personal struggles made Lisa Grushcow a better rabbi

"If people have a certain stereotype of religion, it doesn't usually look like what we do here. I mean, I'm not an old guy with a beard," Gruschow told CBC's new podcast Montreapolis in a wide-ranging interview.

'I understand certain things that maybe I didn't understand before'

Lisa Grushcow, the rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, told CBC's Montreapolis her coming out as a lesbian, her divorce and now, single parenthood, have contributed to making her a better spiritual leader. (Carrie Haber)

This is the seventh in CBC's new podcast series, Montreapolis. You can hear a full feature interview with Rabbi Lisa Grushcow on CBC's new podcast Montreapolis, which brings you conversations with people who make up modern Montreal. Subscribe here.

As a rabbi at one of the largest synagogues in a city where the Jewish population is aging and attendance is in decline, Lisa Grushcow is preoccupied by one central question: how does she get new people in the door?

Gruschow's answer: try to change the way people think about Judaism and faith in general.

"If people have a certain stereotype of religion, it doesn't usually look like what we do here. I mean, I'm not an old guy with a beard," Gruschow told CBC's new podcast Montreapolis in a wide-ranging interview.

"Though some of my best friends are old guys with beards," she added with a laugh.

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"We see gay families, people of different languages and different ethnicities, multiracial families, interfaith families, so that's very much a part of what we bring that I think draws people in," Gruschow said.

Gruschow is so welcoming to different communities because she knows firsthand about being different.

Coming out strengthens faith

In the late 1990s, Grushcow was a young woman studying at the University of Oxford and preparing to enter a conservative seminary to train as a rabbi, something she'd wanted to do from an early age.

Something happened to her she didn't expect: she fell in love with a woman.
Rabbi Lisa Gruschow talks with CBC Montreapolis podcast host Steve Rukavina in her office in the Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom. (Sara Dubreuil)

"At that point I needed to make a decision, because I'd been accepted into the seminary for a movement that wouldn't ordain me as an out lesbian," she said.

"I had the choice of either trying to find a different way to the rabbinate, or just going and doing any other profession where nobody would give a flying fig what my sexuality was," she said.

Grushcow decided to switch from the Conservative branch of Judaism that she was raised in to Reform Judaism, where lesbian rabbis are accepted and quite common. She was ordained as a rabbi there, and she married the woman she fell in love with.

Gruschow said the experience strengthened her faith.

"I never felt distant from God. If anything, it deepened my spirituality, the whole process of coming out," she said.

Divorce makes her better listener

When Grushcow arrived in Montreal five years ago, it seemed like she had it made: happily married with two daughters, and the head rabbi at Temple Emanu-El-Beth Sholom, a well-established congregation.  But she was tested yet again.

Her marriage fell apart. She's now a divorced single mother and primary caregiver to her daughters, aged seven and 13.

She admitted the end of her marriage was painful.  

"At first, when I was officiating weddings and didn't have my own wedding ring on anymore, I felt very self-conscious of it," she said. "But not every marriage is a good marriage."

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The divorce has helped her to be more empathetic and open as a rabbi.

"I understand divorce differently than had I not gone through it, and people can now come and talk to me and I understand certain things that maybe I didn't understand before," she said.

"I think it gave me more depth of understanding, compassion, and less judgment," she said.

Motherhood brings humility

Through the challenges Gruschow has flourished as a spiritual leader.  

It's her daughters who keep her anchored.

"It is really great for humility. I can give a sermon in front of a hundred people, and people will be saying, 'Great sermon, rabbi. I never saw it this way before. You have changed my life,'" Grushcow said.

"Then I go home to two people, and nobody listens to me. And that's that's a good thing. That's exactly as it should be."

You can hear a full feature interview with Lisa Gruschow on CBC's new Montreapolis podcast, bringing you conversations with people who make up modern Montreal. Click here to subscribe.

About the Author

Steve Rukavina is a journalist with CBC Montreal.