Rabbi Earl Grollman was an American Reform rabbi who gained an international reputation for his expertise in clergy serving their parishioners at the sad and emotional times of death, funeral and burial. Originally a congregational rabbi serving one particular synagogue, first his writings and eventually his personal appearances brought him in contact with a wide variety of audiences of many faith communities. I have no problem imagining that his unique sensitivity and professional specialty brought him — and certainly his impact — to countless Americans and probably to those far beyond our borders.
I met Rabbi Grollman only once. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Burton L. Hirsch Funeral Home in Pittsburgh initiated a program that brought eminent speakers in the fields of medical ethics and bereavement arts to town for the sake of the local rabbinic community, then known as the Greater Pittsburgh Rabbinic Fellowship.
I was in attendance as Rabbi Grollman made his presentation and I introduced myself to him afterward as a relatively young and new colleague in the community. I believe that the question I asked of him as an expert was, “How do you recover from one funeral and the focus on a particular family — whatever the age of the deceased or circumstance of the loss of life — to regain balance in your mind and heart?” To this day I can well recall him asking me in return, “How do you?” I responded, “I go on to the next.” His quick response, which I shall never forget, was, “Write it up and I’ll get it published.”
I never did write it up but I never forgot it either.
Skip ahead 30 or 40 years to spring, 2023. The sudden and tragic death of a young accomplished professional from Pittsburgh brought deep pain and spiritual anguish to his loved ones, and countless friends, colleagues and co-workers. In his young life, he was a source of energy and inspiration to many peers of all ages and circumstances, and his unexpected passing has left all of us who knew him, and who cherish his family, in deep and unending shock.
So, I return to Rabbi Grollman and my clear recollection of his conversation with me so many decades ago. He was teaching me that there is no simple or streamlined closure to the death of a human being and the sorrow faced by survivors. The rabbi serves the memory of the deceased and the spiritual needs of the survivors as best as possible; officiating at a meaningful prayer service and coordinating a fitting tribute to the departed loved one are unique mitzvahs in our religious tradition. The combination can touch but hardly diminish the pain and trauma experienced by so many of us. We can lament the loss and reflect on the legacy, but we are probably best served by “moving on” to the next crisis/challenge/death that awaits us on our path as spiritual leaders.
Perhaps I was too young and wet behind the ears those many years ago to write it up as I have now. I have gone on in my career to serve hundreds of bereaved families and deliver almost 1000 eulogies — sometimes two in one day, day after day, or as many as four or five a week. Each loss is served, each sorrow is unique, each bereavement is attended, and the rabbi must be free to continue with full vigor and emotional strength to serve the next family in need. A “clean slate” does not represent a rabbi without emotions or who is indifferent to his flock; rather, it means a professional and a caring soul who can bring his talents, experience and sensitivities to the next family in need.
Maybe I should have written this up back then after all. Rabbi Earl Grollman died a few months ago at a ripe old age and never got to see it. PJC
Rabbi Stephen E. Steindel was senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Shalom from 1986-2009, and rabbi of Beth El Congregation of the South Hills from 1973-1983. This year marks the 50th anniversary of his ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary.