Longtime Aish director, Rabbi Grunberger announces plans to retire, make aliyah

Rabbi Elazar Grunberger

By David Baugher, Special to the Jewish Light

When Rabbi Elazar Grunberger began the St. Louis leg of his career, he expected it would be two years before he returned to Israel. 

Now, he’s finally going back – 26 years later.

“We’ve enjoyed St. Louis on many levels,” he said. “It’s been a great place to raise our family.”

In August, Grunberger, spiritual leader of U.City Shul, and his wife, Brocha, will depart for Jerusalem where the rabbi will be taking a senior leadership position with Aish HaTorah, an organization he’s been involved with since the 1970s when he moved to Israel the first time. He met Brocha in the Jewish State in 1980, arriving in St. Louis in 1985 to lead the local Aish affiliate.

Still, he didn’t come here just for a job.

“My goal was to reach out to the broader Jewish community and share the beauty of our Torah and Jewish tradition,” he said. “Through a wide variety of Jewish educational programming and services along with developing relationships, my goal was to inspire Jews to connect in a deeper way.”

Starting in an apartment, the local Aish moved to a Delmar Boulevard storefront in 1987 and added three more rabbis in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s. The organization eventually purchased more property and built the Gloria and Rubin Feldman Aish HaTorah Center for Jewish Studies, also known as the “Firehouse,” in 1999, expanding the organization’s reach to Chesterfield.

“My greatest accomplishment wasn’t the growth and building of Aish HaTorah and the U.City Shul and it also wasn’t the building the Firehouse and all the programs,” said Grunberger, 52. “The real accomplishment that gives my wife and I nachas (pleasure and satisfaction) is to know that we have touched the lives of many individuals and families in significant ways. 

He said it’s a vocation that he wishes to continue in Israel.

“We have connected many Jews back to their heritage, their family, and their community.  This is the essence of the outreach and it’s very fulfilling,” he said. “The job is far from finished but we hope we’ve made a dent and we hope to continue this meaningful work in Jerusalem,” he added.

Another prong of the rabbi’s meaningful work here sprang from the creation of Sha’arei Chesed Shul, an outreach-oriented synagogue he helped start in 1996 from the purchase of another shul, Chesed Shel Emeth. The new institution would eventually merge with Beth Hamedrosh Hagodol in 2006. Serving as Sha’arei Chesed’s rabbi from its inception, Grunberger decided two years ago to leave his position at the local Aish HaTorah to focus on his rabbinic work at the congregation of about 100 families, now known as the U.City Shul.

Despite leaving the local Aish, he maintained a relationship with the international organization, remaining involved in strategic planning and fundraising activities.

Grunberger said several individuals have been considered to succeed him at U.City Shul and one has been identified as a strong candidate, though a name could not be released at this time. “He’s a young dynamic rabbi with tremendous charisma, scholarship, people skills and outreach abilities,” Grunberger said of his potential successor. “We’re waiting for final board approval. I’m very excited about what the future holds.”

The move to Israel is another source of excitement for Grunberger. Two cousins, his wife’s sister and four of the couple’s 10 children, who range in age from 12 to 29, already live there. Their youngest will move with them. Grunberger eventually plans to settle into Jerusalem’s Jewish Quarter.

“Several months ago when I was first offered the position with Aish Jerusalem, my first reaction was ‘no,'” he said. “I planned to continue my work at the U.City Shul and expand our outreach programs in U City, Clayton and this part of town.  After discussion and deliberation it became apparent to us that the opportunity to make an impact from Jerusalem, the ‘center of the universe’ would be so exciting and fulfilling.”

The title of the senior-level position will be announced in September in Jerusalem. It comes at an interesting time for Aish HaTorah, which recently completed a World Center that occupies a significant position along the Western Wall’s plaza.

Grunberger said it provides a chance to interact with Jewish tourists.

“Jews from all over the world come to Jerusalem and Aish is providing Jewish inspiration and education for students, tourists, and Jewish leaders,” he said. “I’ll be right there, part of a dynamic team making it all happen.”

It’s a job he thinks is important today with Jews facing challenges from lack of identity, assimilation and intermarriage. That’s why he feels that providing programs, classes and other Judaic experiences in an inclusive environment is so important.

He said he’ll miss St. Louis and was thankful to U.City Shul, the local Aish HaTorah and all the people and institutions with which the organizations have partnered.

“We are thankful to Torah Prep School and the Esther Miller Bais Yaakov for providing an excellent education for our children,” he said. “We are grateful to have made many wonderful friends and acquaintances.” 

The feeling from those friends is mutual. Randy Green, a Jewish Federation board member, said Grunberger did much to engage unaffiliated Jews and bring them into meaningful contact with their faith both at Aish and at Sha’arei Chesed.

“I don’t think I’ve ever met anybody who is more committed to the cause with a more sincere and honest self-sacrificing effort in accomplishing that mission,” Green said, noting that the move is timely one for the international Aish. “Our loss is their gain as far as having a committed wonderful person to carry the torch, so to speak.”

Rabbi Shmuel Greenwald, director of education at Aish, said it was Grunberger’s tireless dedication that created countless lunch and learns, seminars and speaking events in the area.

“He brought adult Jewish education to St. Louis when there was really very little here,” he said. “A lot of what’s being done in the community today were originally things that Rabbi Grunberger did that others started to pick up on.”

Greenwald, who has known Grunberger for 15 years, said he will be missed.

“He really threw everything that he had into his work and he did it because he wanted to strengthen the community and imbue it with Torah learning and excitement about Judaism,” he said.

A tribute dinner is planned to honor the Grunbergers on July 14. Call Sylvia Poe at 314-707-2652 for more information.