Rabbi Leslie Y. Gutterman, the son of David and Winifred Gutterman, grew up in Flint, Michigan. He received a B A degree from the University of Michigan and a Doctor of Divinity degree from Hebrew Union College. In 1970, he completed his graduate studies and was ordained a rabbi.
Les Gutterman never intended to work in New England. His planned destination was Chicago. When Rabbi William Braude, from Providence, went to the seminary to find an assistant, Les applied, only as an opportunity to practice interviewing.
In 1970, he became Assistant Rabbi at Temple Beth-El, and in 1974 he became the Temple’s Senior Rabbi, according him the status of being one of the youngest in the country. During his tenure he has built Temple Beth-El into the state’s largest Reform Jewish congregation.
He has been in the business of tending to souls, from young to old, for more than four decades. With his rabbinical tool kit, Rabbi Gutterman has guided us in happy and sad life-cycle events, utilizing a unique combination of rabbinic wisdom, humility, and humor. Whether it is slapstick or subtle, humor plays a big role.
Both his family and the families of his congregation play an integral part in Rabbi Gutterman’s life. He is very proud of his two daughters, Rebecca who followed in her father’s rabbinical footsteps, and Elizabeth, who is a successful drama teacher, writer, and director. He attributes their success to his first wife, Julie, who succumbed to leukemia in 1999.
His life took on a sense of renewal after Les met Janet Engelhart, who moved to Rhode Island to become the Director of the Jewish Federation. Matchmakers in the community conspired to bring them together, and when they married in 2004, Les felt that he had been blessed twice! He is the proud stepfather of Allison Spielman.
Life has brought many unexpected turns. Les says he never would have imagined that “fifteen minutes of fame” would come as a result of a benediction prayer he gave at a graduation ceremony in 1989. The prayer served as the basis for a legal case that traveled all the way to the United States Supreme Court. The dissenting opinion of Justice Antonin Scalia is noteworthy: “Rabbi Gutterman’s words were so characteristically American that they could have been penned by Presidents Lincoln or Washington.”
Among his many community activities are the presidencies of the Rhode Island Committee for the Humanities, the Jewish Family Service, and the Rhode Island Board of Rabbis. He has been a director on several religious, medical, educational, and cultural boards. In addition, Les was a commissioner on the Providence Human Relations Commission, a special lecturer at Providence College, and a member of the Brown University Board of Religious Overseers. For thirty years, Les wrote a column for the Providence Journal’s Face of Religion page. In addition, he has received honorary degrees from five Rhode Island institutions of higher learning.
“To make peace with yesterday, where many remain stuck and haunted by ghosts of the past” is Rabbi Gutterman’s wise philosophical advice to all. True to the motto of Rhode Island, Les also adds “Remain hopeful, as hope is the most powerful feeling of all.”
- Dr. Roberta Brown Feather
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