David Abraham Grossman, 57
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David Abraham Grossman, 57

Mourning the mitzvah man of Harvard Legal Aid who fought vigorously for the poor

This is the story of a Jersey boy who left.

Sure, he loved Bruce Springsteen and modeled what fashion sense he had after him.

But something about his desire to change the world, nurtured in Jersey City and Teaneck, propelled him outward. To Israel, for a time, and then to Boston, where as a Harvard Law student he found a mentor on whom he would model his career, and where he would make a mark as an activist who put law — and an army of Harvard law students — to work helping the poor defend their rights and their homes.

It’s a story that ended last month, when David Abraham Grossman died at 57 of cancer.

David Abraham Grossman practiced tikun olam through his work for Harvard’s Legal Service Center.
David Abraham Grossman practiced tikun olam through his work for Harvard’s Legal Service Center.

Congressman Joseph Kennedy, Robert Kennedy’s grandson and a former student of Mr. Grossman’s at Harvard, eulogized his beloved teacher on the House floor. “Throughout his career, he showed how words like justice and fairness were not just ideas for discussion but principles that had to be fought for, protected and defended,” Mr. Kennedy said. “In so doing, he protected thousands of people in need and inspired hundreds of young lawyers.”

Mr. Grossman’s story began in Jersey City. He grew up in a close-knit extended family, which made his parents’ decision to leave Jersey City for Teaneck a difficult one, David’s wife, Stacy, said.

But his parents had become “completely and thoroughly disgusted with the public school system” in Jersey City, she said.

His father, Harold Grossman, was a physician. His mother, Gloria Feldman Grossman, was both Jewishly observant and classically educated. She read her young son the “Iliad” and the “Odyssey” and taught him the Greek alphabet. He outpaced his Teaneck middle school and went to the Horace Mann School in New York. Then on to Harvard for college, followed by two years at Harvard Divinity School, where he earned a master’s degree in Eastern religions.

Judaism, though, was central to Mr. Grossman’s life. He moved to Israel in 1983, where, among other activities, he worked for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel, clerked for two justices on the Israeli Supreme Court, and played basketball for the Maccabi Ranana team.

Then he came back to America and earned a law degree at Harvard.

By the time Stacy met David at a Manhattan law firm — she was a paralegal, he was an attorney, both worked on a large antitrust case — he had figure out what he wanted to do and where he wanted to do it. And he did not want a lucrative career as a New York attorney, though that job would have had the advantage of being close to his parents. What he wanted was to return to Boston and use his legal skills to help the poor.

And in 1992, after spending a few months in Israel helping the Knesset campaigns of Shulamit Aloni and the Meretz party, they moved to Boston, where their children, Shayna, now 14, and Lev, 17, were born.

“One of the things that was very important for David was his sense of Jewishness and yiddishkeit,” Stacy said.

That was true. But for David, his wife said, “what was most imperatively important for being Jewish” was not his kosher kitchen, or the family Shabbat observance, or his daily davening — all of which were a daily part of his life — but rather “tikun olam, to heal the broken world we inherited.”

In Boston, Mr. Grossman found a place to fulfill his devotion to tikun olam. He worked for Harvard’s Legal Service Center, teaching and training law students in practical skills — and harnessing those skills to represent the poor.

“He was the first person in Harvard’s clinical program to get students to not only work on cases for indigent clients, but to go and advocate in the streets, to knock on doors, to canvass neighborhoods, to let them know they were being foreclosed upon,” Stacy said.

Work with legal services also offered a chance to dress like Mr. Springsteen: denim pants always, except for three suits he reserved for the days he went to court.

In 2006, Elena Kagan, then dean of Harvard Law School, named Mr. Grossman head of the Harvard Legal Aid Bureau. In his work for tenants, Mr. Grossman embodied the values of a Woody Guthrie song that Mr. Springsteen knew but seldom performed about a Depression-era bank robber, “Pretty Boy Floyd.” “Some will rob you with a six-gun, and some with a fountain pen, And as through your life you travel, Yes, as through your life you roam, You won’t never see an outlaw, Drive a family from their home.”

In 2007, when the financial crisis led to waves of foreclosures in poor and working-class neighborhoods, whose residents had been targeted for predatory loans during the housing boom, Mr. Grossman led a coalition of Boston groups that mounted a fierce anti-foreclosure effort. In the neighborhoods, his students went door to door to let residents know their rights and begin to advocate; in the state house, he pushed for efforts that passed legislation to prevent evictions.

“He never bragged, so I didn’t know how much he did until he died,” said his aunt, Helen Feldman Kaplan of Teaneck. “Up until the end, he would ask more questions about you than tell you anything about himself.”

Ms. Grossman said that at the request of former students and colleagues, she is forming a foundation “that will provide funding for poverty lawyers and social justice advocates. It will continue to fund the kind of work David did in his lifetime.”

His last trip to Israel was in 2007, a year before he was diagnosed with cancer.

“We hadn’t made any plans for a vacation,” Ms. Grossman said. On kind of a whim I said, let’s just go.” Their children were 6 and 10 then. “Old enough to be able to take a trip to Israel, something David always wanted to do as a family together.

“It was one of many great, live-in-the-moment decisions we made, that we learned after he was diagnosed with cancer was the best way to live,” she said. “Had we not gone then, we would not have been able to go.”

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