Rabbi Aims to Offer a ‘Home’ for Everyone

Yonah Gross celebrated a birthday last week, but he hasn't told many of his new congregants just how old that makes him.

"I am 29. It's a little bit of a secret. In Orthodox circles, it's kind of young to be the rabbi of a shul," said the boyish-looking rabbi.

Last month, the father of two became just the second rabbi in the 40-year history of Congregation Beth Hamedrosh, an Orthodox synagogue that two years ago relocated from the Overbrook section of Philadelphia to Wynnewood, where the bulk of its members now live.

While Rabbi Shlomo Caplan, who retired last June after 33 years at the helm, attended Ner Israel Rabbinical College, a right-leaning yeshiva in Baltimore, Gross is a graduate of Yeshiva University, the flagship of Modern Orthodoxy.

Mark Zohar, the shul's president, downplayed the religious and philosophical differences between the two leaders, though they do have different personalities and strengths. Zohar said that Caplan was considered a great Torah scholar, while Gross impressed the rabbinic search team with his communication skills and ability to relate.

Zohar also stressed that the young man's knowledge of Jewish history and sources set him apart from other candidates. The president added that a rabbi's wife is part of what attracts people to a shul, and the committee was equally impressed with Chava Gross. Zohar said that the shul hopes they have found someone who can help the congregation grow over the long haul.

Right now, the congregation is made up of about 90 families. Gross noted that the lack of affordable housing for young couples — coupled with the fact that most need to be within walking distance of synagogue — represents a real obstacle.

Sitting in his largely bare office, Gross — a native of Queens, N.Y. — stressed that what he lacks in experience, he makes up for in energy.

"I'm in this business because I believe that Jews have a need to feel a connection with God. On whatever level a person chooses to engage that, I think they'll grow," said Gross, a former high school basketball player who runs and works out on a regular basis. Exercise helps him think better, he said.

Gross explained that he was drawn to Beth Hamedrosh in part because of the varied backgrounds of members — a mix of centrist or Modern Orthodox, those who tend to be considered more fervently Orthodox, and even some who don't fully observe Shabbat or kashrut, yet have become comfortable there.

Gross attended Yeshiva University's high school and then, in just 21/2 years, earned a history degree from the college. He then went on to Y.U.'s rabbinical seminary. He's also one course shy of completing a master's in counseling at Pace University, also in New York City.

Gross headed west to run a small congregation in Phoenix. (Having arrived back East just a month ago, he said the weather has proved quite a shock.)

While he noted that Beth Hamedrosh offers a very different flavor than, say, Chabad Lubavitch, he hopes to implement some similar outreach techniques.

"My goal is to try and figure out a way to reach Jews across the spectrum and figure out ways of Jewish engagement that fit where they are at — or, hopefully, where they could get to," he said. "Part of our core values is to be a Jewish home for all Jews."



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