A Rabbi For The Ages
Rabbi Irwin Groner, 81, the internationally renowned, eloquent spiritual voice at Congregation Shaarey Zedek for a half-century, died Sunday, Dec. 30, 2012, at William Beaumont Hospital in Royal Oak after a long illness.
A funeral service was scheduled at the Southfield synagogue Rabbi Groner so greatly loved Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 1, with burial at Clover Hill Park Cemetery in Birmingham.
“We are deeply saddened at the passing of Rabbi Groner,” said Rabbi Joseph H. Krakoff of Shaarey Zedek. “He was a true giant in the rabbinical world. He was an inspiring teacher, a magnificent preacher and a man who truly understood the depth of the human condition.
“Rabbi Groner approached every situation with a smile, a sense of humor and an acute sense of caring and concern.
“He was a wonderful mentor to me and really gave me my start as a rabbi, kindly guiding me and gently directing me,” Rabbi Krakoff said.
David Groner, a Wayne County Circuit Court judge, spoke at the 75th birthday celebration for his father held at Shaarey Zedek on Oct. 29, 2006. Speaking directly to his dad, David said, “While growing up, our family watched you treat people with dignity, respect and kindness. We watched you help and comfort those who were in mourning and sadness.
“We watched you share in people’s happiness and joy. And, of course, we watched and listened as you inspired so many with your eloquent sermons, delivered from this bimah.
“You instilled in us the principles that helped us all navigate through the journey of life; you lent us wisdom and knowledge to enrich our lives and those around us,” David Groner said.
“You taught us charity and compassion in our dealings with others. You encouraged us to have the integrity and moral courage to do what’s right. You passed on your strong belief and faith in God and to help us stay on course.
“All the while, you, by your example, demonstrated these virtues. You unequivocally embody the words: father, mentor, teacher and rabbi.”
The measure of Irwin Groner — the man, the rabbi, the future Jewish leader — was determined at a small synagogue in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957.
Gov. Orville Faubus had ordered the state’s National Guard to prevent desegregation of city schools by blocking the entry of nine African American students into the high school. President Dwight Eisenhower called in federal troops to guard them and prevent rioting.
The anti-black sentiment also caused anti-Semitic incidents, imperiling the Little Rock shul of 150 families. The FBI warned its young rabbi, Irwin Groner, to stop all services because of bomb threats.
“But we wouldn’t give in to the threats then, just as we shouldn’t give in to terrorist threats today,” he related in later years. “Our attendance at services even increased because of it.
“So, we hired a watchman to handle our security. When I saw him, I whispered to our president: ‘He looks elderly and out of shape.’ The president said: ‘You don’t have to whisper; he can’t hear well, either.’”
A few years later, Rabbi Groner came to Michigan where he served as assistant rabbi, then head rabbi and rabbi emeritus for more than 50 years at Shaarey Zedek, endearing himself to the Metro Detroit Jewish community and establishing a worldwide reputation as a religious leader.
Following his heroic stand at a terrifying time in Arkansas, Rabbi Groner took on an even greater challenge seven years after he arrived at Shaarey Zedek. On Feb. 12, 1966, Rabbi Morris Adler, Shaarey Zedek’s beloved, longtime spiritual leader, was gunned down on the bimah by a troubled young member of the synagogue.
Rabbi Adler, 60, was first shot in the arm and, while wounded, pushed the bar mitzvah boy out of the way. A second shot hit him in the back of the head. The attacker then shot himself and died. Rabbi Adler lingered for a month before passing away.
Rabbi Groner was at Camp Tamarack in Oakland County with a youth group the day of the shooting and rushed back to comfort the Adler family — and congregants who witnessed the incident. He even officiated at the attacker’s funeral — “I did what had to be done,” he said later — then went about the task of unifying the stunned congregation.
“It was a great tragedy and we had to heal the wounds of our members and move forward,” he reflected in an interview with the Detroit Jewish News a decade ago at the time of Shaarey Zedek’s 140th anniversary celebration.
A year after Rabbi Adler’s death, Rabbi Groner was appointed the synagogue’s senior rabbi, filling the first chair on the bimah, left vacant for a year out of respect for Rabbi Adler. In 1978, he was named rabbi for life, then took on emeritus status in 2003.
Family Of Rabbis
Handling adversity like the Little Rock incident and the Adler murder was nothing new for Irwin Groner. After all, he was a rabbi, a member of a family of rabbis. His father, two brothers, a brother-in-law and seven nephews were all rabbis. In fact, when his father, Max, died in 1982, there were 19 family rabbis at shivah services.
Irwin Groner was born Oct. 27, 1931, in Chicago. He graduated from the University of Chicago and was ordained at the Hebrew Theological College of Chicago. His first pulpit was at the Little Rock synagogue, Agudath Achim Congregation, where his family went through the perilous times of the 1950s.
“Needless to say, when we received a call from Shaarey Zedek, we were happy to leave Arkansas,” Rabbi Groner recalled in the interview. With his wife, Leypsa, and daughter, Debbie, he joined Shaarey Zedek as an assistant rabbi in 1959. His two sons, Joel, a clinical psychologist in Chicago, and David, were born in Michigan.
Rabbi Groner saw a synagogue, rich in Detroit and Jewish tradition, grow to 1,900 member families in its sixth location since being founded in 1861, recently marking its 150th anniversary. The beautiful Southfield edifice has received recognition in national magazines and newspapers.
“Our growth and development was made possible by the opportunities offered Jews and all ethnic and religious groups in America,” Rabbi Groner asserted.
Throughout that growth, he officiated at numerous weddings and funerals, often on the same day — “which can test anyone’s emotions,” he bemoaned — plus bar and bat mitzvahs and other occasions. In addition, there were many hospital visits to sick congregants, shivah calls and obligatory attendance at charity and social events. “I started to keep count of all of this in the early years, but it gave me a headache, so I quit counting,” he mused.
A Voice Of Conscience
“The key to being a successful rabbi is keeping the congregation happy,” Rabbi Groner said. “I’ve tried my best to do that. A rabbi has a unique role besides being a teacher. He or she also must be the voice and conscience of the synagogue. You must rise to each occasion, revitalize the members and exhibit wisdom and judgment, like the sages of Israel.”
He always believed that one of his biggest challenges over the years — “the same as that of any rabbi in the world” — was to preserve Jewish tradition in a secular world and deliver the message of those traditions to contemporary Jewish people.
He mediated many family squabbles, the alienation of parents and children, animosity among businesspeople and other disputes. He never revealed details of these events, but he figured that, over the years, he saved many marriages and parent/child relationships. He convinced people to resolve the conflict by just forgiving each other — “not to remain obsessed with their own points of view.”
Rabbi Groner also was active in many community events. He was proud of his efforts as chairman of the Stop Anti-Ballistic Missile Committee in the 1970s, when the U.S. government tried to install these missiles in the Detroit area and other heavily populated centers to forestall possible attacks by potential enemy nations. “We held rallies and succeeded mainly due to the outcry of the public and their resistance to this unnecessary project,” he recalled.
In the 1980s, he became the first clergyman to serve on the Michigan Judicial Tenure Commission, which settles grievances in the legal community, appointed by Gov. James Blanchard. He subsequently was its chairman for four years. He also served twice as president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis and was a board member of many Jewish and civic organizations.
But the crowning achievement of his career was his presidency in 1990-1992 of the Rabbinical Assembly, an international organization of 1,500 Conservative rabbis. “This definitely has been the highlight of my professional career,” he said. He also was chairman of a governing board that conducted a 10-year project resulting in publishing of Etz Chayim, a one-volume commentary on the Torah.
Rabbi Groner gets a lion’s share of the credit for ascension of women into more prominent roles at Shaarey Zedek, such as a woman becoming president, counting women as part of the daily minyan, giving them aliyot, allowing them to read from the Torah and enabling them to become ushers on Shabbat. He also helped launch an endowment program among synagogue leaders that today totals more than 200 contributors.
The rabbi was famous among congregants for the admonitions and suggestions he used in sermons, affectionately known as “Gronerisms.” They usually were heard at the beginning of sermons, especially on the High Holidays. He often would say: “Before I talk, I want to say a few words.
“I use humor to encourage the audience to listen and be more attentive. If it’s done correctly, it will work for any rabbi.”
His sermons, essays and other articles were published in many periodicals of the Conservative movement. He wrote a Torah portion of the week column from time to time for the Detroit Jewish News.
One of his favorite stories was about a woman on a plane who became frightened because of turbulence. She noticed that the man sitting next to her is a rabbi and she implored him: “Can’t you do something about this?” The rabbi answered: “I’m in sales, not management.”
Rabbi Groner recalled the time a congregant came to his office complaining that a eulogy the rabbi had just given was not good enough for the deceased. “He told me to give a better eulogy at his funeral,” the rabbi said. “I told him that if he felt so strongly about it, he should write the eulogy himself, and I would deliver it when the time came. The man replied, ‘I can’t; I’m too modest.’”
In later years, Rabbi Groner was slowed by Parkinson’s disease, then suffered a mild stroke in 1999 while visiting his good friends, Ambassador David Hermelin and his wife, Doreen, in Norway. He told the congregation about the stroke in a letter, then rebounded and returned to the pulpit within months.
Shortly after taking emeritus status, he became confined to a wheelchair. However, he, Leypsa and a caregiver were often seen around the community, and he would even go to his synagogue office a few days a week.
Summing up his career once during a private conversation, he philosophized: “If I had to do it all over again, I wouldn’t change anything. I did the best I could do. My outlook has been the same throughout my life.”
He then cited the words of Solomon Schechter, the noted Jewish educator and philosopher: “Always leave a little bit for God to take care of.”
Rabbi Irwin Groner is survived by his beloved wife of 59 years, Leypsa Groner; sons and daughter-in-law, Judges David Groner and Amy Hathaway, Dr. Joel Groner; Judge Hathaway’s children, Lisa, Stephen and Kathryn; sister, Sarah Barach; and his friend and caregiver, Marek Stepniak.
He was the loving father of the late Deborah “Debbie” Groner; the dear brother of the late Rabbi Benjamin Groner, the late Rabbi Oscar Groner, the late Julius Groner, the late Morton Groner and the late Ruth Rosenbaum; the devoted son of the late Rabbi Max Groner and the late Beatrice Lehrfield Groner.
Interment was at Clover Hill Park Cemetery. Contributions may be made to the Rabbi Irwin Groner Fund at Congregation Shaarey Zedek. Arrangements were by Ira Kaufman Chapel.
Editor’s Note: Detroit Jewish News Contributing Writer Bill Carroll, a longtime Metro Detroit journalist, was a congregant and friend of Rabbi Groner. He prepared this obituary prior to the rabbi’s death. Tragically, Mr. Carroll passed away of a sudden illness one day after his rabbi’s death.
Also contributing to this report were JN Senior Copy Editor David Sachs, Story Development Editor Keri Guten Cohen and Contributing Editor Robert Sklar.