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Baptist layman finds fellowship as administrator of synagogue

LIBERTY, Mo. (BP)–Until a year ago, Richard Groves never had set foot inside a synagogue. Now he manages one.

Groves, a member of Second Baptist Church in Liberty, Mo., is executive director of Congregation Beth Shalom in Kansas City. For a synagogue of 1,100 families, he oversees a $2 million budget, supervises 22 people and oversees the congregation’s cemetery.

“My work is essentially not a religious job at all,” Groves said. “I just happen to serve a religious congregation. It’s like working anywhere, except my employers’ precepts are prayer, study and good works.”

He is the first non-Jewish executive director for this congregation, senior Rabbi Alan Cohen said. “It is very unusual for a non-Jewish person to serve as an administrator who works with a synagogue,” Cohen said. “Rich has a willingness to understand and be familiar with our concepts. But what has made it work — whether being an administrator of a Jewish institution or Baptist institution or any denomination — is the fundamental principles of decency and respect for human beings. And that’s something that crosses all lines — race, religion or gender.”

Groves started working in the synagogue in a temporary capacity in April 1999. After a couple of months, the congregation president asked him if he would like to be considered for the permanent position.

“I immediately sensed how my background could be of use,” Groves said. Both his church background — chairman of deacons, church council, committees — and his three decades in corporate management would be helpful.

“And I had a comfort level with Jewish people,” he said. “One of my best friends in graduate school was Jewish, and I once lived in an Orthodox Jewish neighborhood in Connecticut. I had been to Israel, Jordan and Lebanon during college when I attended Baptist Youth World Alliance. I’ve been to the Wailing Wall, the Temple site and Nazareth.

“So, professionally, I had experience; personally, I was comfortable with Jewish people; and religiously, I had an opportunity to learn and potentially to be a bridge between Christianity as I know it and Judaism as experienced here [at Beth Shalom].”

He was named to the permanent position in July 1999. During the past year at Congregation Beth Shalom, Groves said, he has come to a greater appreciation of his own Christian heritage by learning more about the faith history he has in common with Jews.

For example, he regularly hears the rabbi offer a d’vartorah, or devotional. “It certainly enriches my life. I have found so much in the Jewish faith that reinforces the things I have learned. I am challenged to be more of a Bible student.”

Groves said he looks for situations in which Christians and Jews can interact. This past April, he offered to help organize a Passover dinner in Second Church.

In the Jewish tradition, a Passover dinner celebrates the exodus of the Israelites from Egypt. Rabbi Cohen provided items and found synagogue members to assist. About 200 Baptists attended the abbreviated version of the dinner on Palm Sunday night.

“The people at Second Baptist want to do it again,” Groves said. “It was so successful because the people here [at Beth Shalom] are so good at coaching and encouraging.” Groves and his wife, Mavis, also attended a Passover dinner in Rabbi Cohen’s home. It lasted from about 7 p.m. to midnight. Groves said he has attended a few of the synagogue’s special events, but generally, “I’m in church on Sunday and on my bike on Saturdays.” He often rides his bike 20 or 30 miles in a day.

A native of Liberty, Groves is a graduate of William Jewell College and Washington University, St. Louis. He and Mavis have two grown sons, Jason and Jordan.

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  • Stacey Hamby