This past Shabbat, November 23, my beloved mentor and Rebbe, Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, of blessed memory, passed away. The impact this great rabbinic figure had on my life is almost impossible to put into words but he meant too much for me not to try.
Rabbi Grunblatt was my Rabbi since the very day I was born. He assumed the position as Rabbi of the Queens Jewish Center (QJC) in Forest Hills, Queens where I am from, shortly before I was born in July of 1967. As he always liked to say, my bris (circumcision) was the first simcha in the community at which he officiated. He was similarly there for me at my bar-mitzvah, my rabbinic ordination, my wedding, my mother’s funeral, and at all of my sons’ britot.
As far as I can remember our family was close with Rabbi Grunblatt. My parents admired him greatly and treated the Rabbi and his Rebbetzin with the utmost respect. We spent Shabbat meals at each other’s homes and I especially loved delivering mishloach manot (food baskets) to the Grunblatt’s on Purim because they would let each child pick their favorite plastic toy.
Rabbi Grunblatt hailed from Leipzig, Germany but spent his formative years studying in London, England at the Eitz Chayim Yeshiva under the great Torah scholar and ethicist Rabbi Elyah Lopian, whom he often quoted in his sermons. In the United States, Rabbi Grunblatt studied at a number of Yeshivot, most notably Torah Vodath where he received his rabbinic ordination. He taught Jewish Philosophy at Touro College for many decades and lectured throughout the country.
As a boy I could tell by the way everyone spoke of the Rabbi that he was a serious scholar but I never really knew it for myself until I was about 18. I had just returned from a year of Torah study in Israel and I decided to remain in the synagogue for one of his sermons (I usually ran around with my friends playing “bottle-cap soccer” in the auditorium) and I was blown away. I realized that this rabbi, my Rabbi, had much to say and wow, could he say it. I began attending other classes Rabbi Grunblatt was teaching and after Shabbat I would try to jot down some of his thoughts from the sermon he delivered that morning. The Rabbi was a master orator who was able to speak his congregants’ language by weaving together the weekly Torah portion with teachings from some of the great writers and thinkers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike. Maimonides and Nachmanides were taught alongside Kant and Nietzsche and somehow a pertinent and relevant message for our generation emerged.
Rabbi Grunblatt’s annual Shabbat Shuva (before Passover) lecture drew hundreds from all over Queens. You had to get there at least 20 minutes early to guarantee yourself a seat and there was something for everyone. The Rabbi would usually begin his discourse with a Halachic (Jewish legal) question which he would trace from the verse in the Torah to the Mishna, Talmud and Rishonim (early commentators) and then proceed to analyze the question conceptually using the classic Brisker methodology. He would then move on to a more philosophical question and approach it using both the traditional medieval Jewish philosophers as well as general philosophy, both classic and modern. Then came the Mussar, the ethical lessons and his message to the community. Now he had everyone’s attention. His thesis was always relevant, powerfully communicated and directed at inspiring his congregants to take their Jewish observance and ethical living to the next level. Ultimately his message was taken seriously not only because it was so well presented and grounded in Torah and scholarship but also because it came from a man so genuinely humble and free of ego or personal agenda.
To satisfy my internship requirement for rabbinical school I asked Rabbi Grunblatt if I could start a Beginners Prayer Service for those with less of a background and whether he would serve as my mentor. The Rabbi graciously agreed and for the next three years I had the privilege of working under Rabbi Grunblatt’s guidance at the QJC. I plastered the neighborhood with flyers and took some ads out in the local papers. On the first week eight people showed up for the service but the Rabbi was encouraging and thankfully the minyan started to grow. He would come in towards the end of the service to share a word of Torah and then served as the “guest lecturer” at my first Basic Judaism series. He taught me how to kasher a kitchen and answered my endless halachic questions. But there was one student who I couldn’t seem to help: A gentleman named Vladamir, a Ph.d in Mathematics from the University of Leningrad would rise to his feet, almost every Shabbat at the Beginners Service, and ask me some question relating to math, physics, science and the Bible. Vladamir was off-the-charts brilliant who believed in only what could be scientifically proven and I was supposed to somehow reconcile every discrepancy he saw between modern science and classical Judaism. I was all of 22 and feeling very unqualified. Somewhat despondent I asked Rabbi Grunblatt to step in. He met with Vladamir and after the meeting the Rabbi called me to give some encouragement: “Mark, you know you did in fact accomplish something positive with Vladamir” “What’s that”, I asked?: “Well” answered the Rabbi, “before Vladamir started coming to the Beginners Service he was convinced that only foolish people believed in God”. “well, he still dosen’t believe in God”, continued the Rabbi, “but now he believes there are intelligent people who do and that is a measure of success”.
To this day I am convinced Vladamir only said that after he met with Rabbi Grunblatt.
Rabbi Grunblatt was a rare combination of Yirat Hashem and profound religiosity on the one hand and intellectual openness on the other. I always knew it was a rare privilege to be mentored by such an erudite scholar but what was even more special was his sense of chesed, of kindness and concern which he displayed for all people and in particular, his congregants. When an elderly and very proud single congregant refused the rabbi’s offer for help he called my mother, of blessed memory, to strategize and intervene. He in turn was there for our family when our mother fell ill and the sadness I know he himself felt when she died helped to console me. My mother’s association with and admiration of Rabbi Grunblatt remains another strong connection that I had with the rabbi and another reason why his passing is so difficult and personnel for me, not to mention how hard I worked on trying to impress him.
I so wanted the Rabbi to be proud of me.
I wanted him to know that I was internalizing what he taught me and that his profound teachings not only had an impact on me but on my students as well. I wanted him to know that all the time and effort he spent on me would somehow benefit others. In fact that was the last thing I ever said to him. I called before Rosh Hashanna to wish the Rabbi a good year and unfortunately he was in a lot of pain and so I said: “Rabbi I’m so sorry you’re so uncomfortable and I know you’re not in a position to teach but the drashot (sermons) I prepared for Rosh Hashanna and Yom Kippur contain so many of your insights, so much of what you taught me”. He seemed to appreciate what I said but was having a hard time talking and so I continued: “Rabbi, you know I would never have been able to teach or know any of this if it wasn’t for you. Please know that hundreds of my students at MJE will be hearing your Torah over the next few days”. Clearing his throat Rabbi Grunblatt responded: “Thank you…be mazliach…I’m very proud”. I thanked him and told him I loved him and that was the last conversation we ever had.
I was truly blessed to have Rabbi Grunblatt in my life. Every class I teach, every sermon I deliver, and every question I try to answer has and will always be informed by what this great Rabbi taught me. And so he truly does live on. Tzadikim b’misasan nikra chayim – “The righteous in their death are still called living”, remarked the Sages of the Talmud. I will sorely miss my beloved Rebbe but his teachings and life example will live on forever.