UH’s Rabbi Grollman dies at 86

BY ROBERT A. COHN, EDITOR-IN-CHIEF EMERITUS

Rabbi Jerome W. Grollman, rabbi emeritus of United Hebrew Congregation, who was in his 60th year of association with the congregation, and who was widely praised for his moral courage and civil rights leadership, died Saturday, Aug. 9, 2008 from complications of renal disease at St. John’s Mercy Medical Center in Creve Coeur. He was 86 years of age and a resident of Ladue.

Rabbi Grollman served United Hebrew Congregation since his rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union Colege, coming to United Hebrew as assistant rabbi in 1948, serving under Rabbi Samuel Thurman. After serving as associate rabbi from 1951, he assumed spiritual leadership of the congregation in 1958, until 1990, when he became rabbi emeritus upon the appointment of Rabbi Howard Kaplansky as senior rabbi of the large Reform congregation. United Hebrew Congregation is the oldest congregation in Greater St. Louis, having been founded in 1837, and approving its first by-laws in 1841.

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A native of Baltimore, Rabbi Grollman earned his bachelor’s degree in 1942 from the University of Maryland and a master’s in Hebrew letters and rabbinic ordination in 1948, from the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. In 1954, he married the former Elaine Braff. They later divorced, and in 1979, he married Dolores Moss of St. Louis.

Rabbi Grollman, along with his second cousin Rabbi Bernard Lipnick, now rabbi emeritus of Congregation B’nai Amoona, and William (Bill) Kahn, former executive vice president of the Jewish Community Center and Jewish Federation of St. Louis, were among members of the St. Louis Jewish community who strongly supported the Civil Rights Movement led by Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. In 1960, Dr. King was a guest of Rabbi Grollman and members of United Hebrew. King had just been released from jail, according to an article by Denice Santangelo in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, who wrote that Dr. King “was exhausted prior to his speech to the congregation. He napped in a chair in Rabbi Grollman’s study and then gave a passionate speech. Rabbi Grollman never parted with that chair.”

She further reports that in a 2005 interview, “Rabbi Grollman recalled that after the speech, people were invited to a reception. ‘It was almost like a lovefest. People from all races and backgrounds were sharing their feelings.'” Bill Kahn recalled that same evening in recent remarks in St. Louis. “People were lining up just to make physical contact with Dr. King, reaching out just to touch the sleeve of his suit jacket. It took guts for Rabbi Grollman to host Dr. King at a time when many people were not enthusiastic about his work.”

Rabbi Grollman was honored by two major local Jewish organizations for his civil rights work. In February 2007, he and local African-American civil rights leader Norman Seay, received the third annual Jews United for Justice Rabbi (Abraham Joshua) Heschel-Dr. King Celebration Award. The late Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel marched with Dr. King, as did Rabbis Grollman and Lipnick and Bill Kahn, each of whom also received the award in prior years. On June 8, the St. Louis Chapter of the American Jewish Congress presented its 2008 Democracy in Action Award to Rabbi Grollman in tribute to his many years of community service, his civil rights work and his high moral principles. Illness prevented him from attending the event, so the award was accepted on his behalf by Rabbi Lipnick, and his stepson, Jim Moss.

The award was presented on behalf of the AJCongress by Leonard Frankel, past president of the chapter, who said, “It is a great honor to present our Democracy in Action Award to Rabbi Grollman, now in his 60th year in the rabbinate and association with United Hebrew. Certainly Rabbi Grollman exemplifies Religion in Action for our entire community,” Frankel said. “On Aug 28, 1963, Rabbi Grollman participated in the historic March on Washington which culminated with Dr. King’s ‘I Have a Dream’ speech. Bill Kahn, former executive of our Federation and JCC recalls fondly how Rabbi Grollman hosted Dr. King, and how meaningful Dr. King found Rabbi Grollman’s passionate support of his movement.”

Rabbi Grollman was four times elected president of the St. Louis Rabbinical Association, and served as the first president of the Midwest Association of Reform Rabbis and also the Reform Rabbis Association of St. Louis. He served on the boards of numerous agencies in the Jewish and general communities, and served as a visiting professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and was a faculty member at Eden Theological Seminary.

In remarks quoted in the Post-Dispatch, Rabbi Lipnick recalled, “He was a passionate civil rights advocate and participated in so many efforts. He was very courageous and a disciplined person. He took positions that were not popular with all, such as (regarding) the State of Israel. He expected Israel to act in moral and ethical ways; he did not hesitate to criticize the Israeli government.”

Rabbi Grollman criticized Israel for its attack on a Libyan airliner that killed 106 people, which Israel believed was being hijacked on a mission to target a building in Tel Aviv. He also wrote a letter to the Post-Dispatch criticizing Israel’s actions in the first Lebanon War in 1982. He was an early advocate of peace between Israel and the Palestinians and believed the Palestinians deserved their own state. Many of these positions were unpopular within the Jewish community and among members of his own congregation. Even those who disagreed with Rabbi Grollman respected his backbone and moral courage for being willing to take controversial positions.

“He held everyone to an ethical and moral standard,” Rabbi Lipnick told the Post-Dispatch. “He believed in the quality and justice of his life. He was not one to sit back.”

Rabbi Grollman also took pioneering actions within his congregation, becoming its first Reform spiritual leader to start wearing a kippah on the bimah of the congregation, a decision which was also criticized by members of his own congregation, but which has since become a common practice among Reform rabbis throughout the community.

In one of Rabbi Grollman’s last communitywide appearances, he joined other senior and retired rabbis at a panel discussion sponsored by the Rabbinical Association as part of the Rabbi Robert P. Jacobs Institute of Judaic Studies. Despite the illness which had curtailed many of his activities, Rabbi Grollman recalled how much he enjoyed his 60 years in the rabbinate and how pleased he was to have been able to sit on the bimah at United Hebrew for the High Holidays last year. Those in attendance at the event in the May Chapel at Temple Israel were amazed at how strong Rabbi Grollman’s voice was during those remarks, and how much they admired his work and his moral courage, which some called similar to the Jewish Prophets of old.

Funeral services were scheduled for Wednesday, Aug. 13, at United Hebrew Congregation, 13788 Conway Road in Chesterfield. Burial was private.

In addition to his wife, Dolores Moss, among the survivors are a son, Alan Grollman of Hillsboro; a daughter, Lisa Grollman of Arlington, Mass.; three stepdaughters, Barbara Moss of Creve Coeur, Bette Hess of Clayton and Patricia Moss of University City; a stepson, Jim Moss of Clayton; a brother, Rabbi Earl Grollman of Belmont, Mass.; and six grandchildren.

Memorial contributions may be made to United Hebrew, 13788 Conway Road, Chesterfield, MO 63017.