Residents at the nursing home call Doris Grossmann by many names: the "Shabbas lady," the "challah lady." Some call her "rabbi." She always replies back to them that she's not a rabbi, only a teacher — a vocation she's held for her entire adult life. Their response: "You are our rabbi."
Grossmann volunteers as a parachaplain at Saunders House, a long-term-care nursing home for nearly 200 residents on the campus of Lankenau Hospital in Wynnewood.
She became involved with the home after her mother suffered a series of strokes, and convalesced there. Grossmann wound up spending a great deal of time at the facility, and eventually began leading Shabbat services in the summer of 1988, after the prior leader could no longer do so.
"I felt Shabbat comes every Friday, and there should be a regular service," said the 77-year-old.
Israel on Her Mind
Born in South Philadelphia, Grossmann was active in the Jewish community throughout her youth.
She earned a scholarship to Temple University, where, on the side, she taught Hebrew to adults at the Hillel on campus. There, she also went on to join any Zionist organization she could, she said, "as long as it had the word Israel in the title."
In the early 1950s, she won a scholarship to attend graduate school at Hebrew University of Jerusalem, though declined the offer because at the time, her mother had fallen ill.
Instead, she augmented her studies at Gratz College, where she earned a teaching certificate in 1949 (and, much later, a bachelor's degree in Hebrew literature in 1973). Also in 1949, she was one of the first people to receive a teaching license from the national Board of Jewish Education of the Conservative movement.
Grossmann taught science in the Philadelphia school district for 18 years — while continuing to teach Hebrew school — then transitioned to teaching Hebrew school full-time after her children were born.
She stayed involved in the formal Jewish community throughout the years while she and her husband, Elihu, now 79, raised their three children. A past president of Main Line Hadassah, she currently sits on the board of Har Zion Temple in Penn Valley, where she taught Hebrew school for 28 years.
She got her chaplaincy training shortly after she started volunteering at Saunders House through the Jewish Chaplaincy Service.
"I thought that working there was an extension of my teaching," she explained. "Most residents have curious minds, and should not be treated as children."
Each week, Grossmann is not only the religious leader, but a friend as well. She talks to men and women about recent events, and inquires about their lives. She also encourages them to express themselves through their talents.
A 100-year-old woman, for example, sings kiddush each week. "She looks forward to that moment," said Grossmann, "when she can be a star."
Another centenarian fashioned 10 kipot for Grossmann, each in a different color.
"It gives me such comfort to see what it does for the people there," she said of the weekly Shabbat service.
Grossmann also noted that the benefits of a life in teaching aren't in earthly treasures, but in spiritual fulfillment.
Reaching out to her students — no matter their age or station in life — inspires this grandmother of seven.
"These are the dividends," she said. "These are the rewards."