Rabbi Saul Grife, 65, retired from Beth Tikvah-B’nai Jeshurun in Glenside in December 2021. Then he returned to the rabbinate at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park in January 2023. But in between, there was a liminal space.
In 2022, Grife took a year off after spending 23 of them at BT-BJ. His first move was to visit Israel for six weeks in the spring, where he spent time with his daughter Alana, who made aliyah, and his granddaughter Lucy, named for his late wife Linda. Grife also lived on a kibbutz with a friend, watched people celebrate Purim in the streets of Jerusalem and sat for a seder with his daughter’s family.
Throughout his weeks there, the rabbi marveled. For 2,000 years, he thought, Israel did not exist. And less than a century ago, the Nazis wiped out more than a third of the world’s Jewish population in the Holocaust. But today, Jews have a land and the will to defend it.
Not long after he returned, Grife realized that there was only one path for him — returning to the rabbinate.
“I say that to people every Chanukah: ‘Be a modern Maccabee.’ It’s not just an ancient story,” the rabbi said.
Leaders from Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El reached out to Grife later that year. The congregation of between 250 and 275 older Jews was going to start gathering in the sanctuary again and needed a spiritual leader. The Wyndmoor resident guided his first Shabbat service and lunch and learn on Jan. 21.
About 25 of the rabbi’s friends and former congregants came out, ate and wished him well. Grife thinks some will stay at the Elkins Park synagogue to “check it out.” He also may reach out to people in the neighborhood to see if they are looking for programs for their kids. If there is interest, he can start with one class and build from there. The Conservative synagogue does not have a school because it does not have any young families in its congregation.
“We’ll just see how that goes,” Grife said.
Grife is not Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El’s full-time rabbi. He is serving for six months while shul leaders search for a spiritual leader. Grife said he may want the position. He will figure that out as he goes. But right now, he’s just taking it day by day. During his six months, he wants to offer an experience that can attract “very traditional” Jews but also Jews “who are looking for something more modern and liberal.”
Grife is a Grateful Dead-head on a “45-year journey with their music,” he said. And he relates Judaism to the Dead and its devoted fan base in the sense that they are both communities on journeys. According to the rabbi, “It’s all about the journey, man, one day at a time.” “And hopefully we’ll continue on the journey along life’s path,” he added. “We only live once. I’m grateful to be here every day. I’m just hoping to be a part of the answer and not the problem,” he concluded.
As a young man, Grife’s two passions, Judaism and music, presented him with a crossroads. He was either going to pursue the rabbinate or play guitar, hopefully one day “like Eric Clapton.” But even if God had promised him that he would get there one day, he would have chosen the rabbinate, he said.
Back when he was making this decision, Grife realized that if he only helped one Jew as a rabbi, his journey would have been worth it. Today, after the rabbi officiates funerals, family members of the deceased often approach him. They say, “Thank you so much for celebrating my mom’s life. We couldn’t have done it without you.”
“That made it worth it,” he said.
In addition to returning to the pulpit, the rabbi is returning to the Talmud. Grife and a group of former BT-BJ congregants are learning a page a day and gathering once a week to discuss. The cycle of reading all 2,711 pages began in January 2020 and will end in the middle of 2027.
Grife had studied Talmud before, but he had never learned it in its entirety. And both the text and the process of talking about it are blowing his mind.
“It is amazing how we’re one world but everybody takes something different away from it. There is no one issue where all the ancient rabbis agree,” the rabbi explained. “Our Greek chorus (in the group) became, ‘What’s the answer to this question? Yes and no.’ I love that, man. You can disagree but it doesn’t mean that you’re wrong or I’m wrong.” ■