Micah Greenstein: Gift of the Rabbi
Nearly 30 years ago he answered a calling. Today people of faith respond to his
photography by Brandon Dill
Sitting in his office at Temple Israel synagogue, with sunlight streaming through autumn leaves outside his window, Rabbi Micah Greenstein reflects on his paths to rabbinical school and ultimately to Memphis. Curly-haired and handsome, with eyes that narrow in deep thought or in hearty laughter, the slim 50-year-old (who looks more like 30) describes his college years as “premed, prelaw, basically pre-life. I went from biomedical engineering to the justice department in Washington, to economics,” recalls Greenstein, who was a National Scholar at Cornell University and a Kennedy Fellow at Harvard’s John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Then he heard “a calling,” one that prompted his father — also a rabbi — to suggest his son “might ought to see a psychiatrist.” Joking aside, this “RK,” or rabbi’s kid, explains his career decision. “I realized I didn’t want just success but a life of significance and a life devoted to family,” he explains. “So becoming a rabbi was a natural fit. You could say I moved away from public service to Jewish service.”
In 1991, right out of rabbinical school in Cincinnati, he came to Temple Israel here in Memphis as assistant rabbi. While serving since 2000 as senior rabbi of Tennessee’s oldest and largest synagogue and one of the largest Reform congregations in the U.S., Greenstein has also forged bonds between different races and religions, led the city’s first interfaith mission to Israel, and commits himself to various humanitarian causes, from leading clergy support of public schools in Shelby County to educating girls in Cambodia. The only rabbi selected as Tennessee’s principal speaker for the Major State Day at the National Cathedral in 2005, Greenstein was named by Newsweek in 2012 and 2013 as one of the Top 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America.
A voice not only for Judaism but for all people, Greenstein has received his share of hate mail. “Absolutely,” he says, whether it’s in response to his support for Israel’s survival, his outreach to other faiths, or his views about social justice. “But I don’t live in fear,” he says. “My family couldn’t be in a better place when it comes to being loved. The word Jew means ‘thankful,’ and generally my years here have been about love, hope, and gratitude. I have more friends across racial and religious lines than I ever had in L.A., New York, or Boston. Here I found people who aren’t about theology but about faith in action.”
“Micah is gifted at mobilizing people . . .”
Greenstein’s praise for Memphis is genuine — but he’ll also tell you he never meant to stay. His purpose was to revitalize Temple Israel’s youth program, practice being a pulpit rabbi under then-Senior Rabbi Harry Danziger, then head to a bigger city with more opportunities. But while working with his father on a book chapter about racial issues and Southern rabbis, he realized he had landed in “the Jerusalem of civil rights,” says Greenstein, who is only the eighth senior rabbi at Temple Israel in its 160-year history. Beyond that, he saw the challenge that Mid-South demographics offered in terms of Jewish renewal.
“Whereas there used to be a lot of rabbis in Mississippi and Arkansas 30 years ago, now there’s only one credentialed pulpit rabbi in each of those states,” says Greenstein. “I stayed here because I believe in a vibrant Jewish future — not the dying Jew in the Delta.”
Acknowledging a decline in the congregation’s membership — from 1,600 households at its peak to just under 1,500 currently — and within the Jewish population itself, Greenstein offers this explanation: “The Memphis Jewish community is probably the only one in America whose population stayed the same from 1940 to 1990. For decades, if you were from the Delta, Memphis was the closest big city. But the next generation went beyond Memphis and many of them didn’t come back,” he explains. “We hear doomsayers calling us ‘an ever-dying people.’ I like to see us as the ever-living people.”
Vital to that continued life is education. Under Temple Israel’s umbrella is the Barbara K. Lipman Early Learning Center, which has more than 100 children, and The Wendy and Avron Fogelman Religious School, which covers kindergarten through 12th grade and helps students develop positive Jewish identity and a deeper connection to the community.
Greenstein also credits his two younger colleagues — Rabbis Katie Bauman and Adam Grossman — for attracting new, young Jewish talent to Memphis. “The twenty-somethings are looking for significance, to make a difference,” he says, “and what better city than Memphis for young professionals to mentor and help?”
Paula Jacobson, president of the Methodist Healthcare Foundation who serves as president of Temple Israel’s board of directors, says that while the membership may be decreasing, the number of participating members is growing. She attributes that “to Micah’s passion, his leadership, and his vision for strengthening Judaism,” she says. “He is always identifying ways to link the various congregations and is extremely close to other rabbis. He has incredible energy to the point of being manic, and accomplishes more in a day than most would in a week. He leads prayer beautifully and teaches brilliantly. He can move from a community forum to the side of a dying congregant, and treat each situation with equal dignity.”
Dr. Peter Lindy, an orthopedic surgeon and former trustee of Temple Israel’s board, also appreciates Greenstein’s “endless energy, which is often infectious. As a result,” says Lindy, “Micah is gifted at mobilizing people to help with his causes, both within the congregation and within the community. He has worked at elevating the involvement of our congregation with creative and innovative programming, as well as encouraging his staff to do so.”
Jacobson sees the rabbi’s greatest strength as “his laser focus on leading his clergy team and the rest of us to focus always on what’s best for our congregation. He has brought the Jewish community closer in spirit and support.”
“I have found the most amazing brothers and sisters . . ."
As committed as Greenstein is to a vibrant Judaism, he feels just as strongly about interfaith connections. “The longer I stay in Memphis, the more deeply I believe what I always have: The world will become a better place not in spite of our differences but because of them.”
Memphis, says Greenstein, literally serves as a laboratory for most problems that plague the nation — from crime and racism to education and healthcare concerns — all of which can stir anger and discord. “But the great thing here is that we have people willing to cross boundaries,” he adds. “I have found the most amazing brothers and sisters working to tear down the walls that divide us.”
He names a few pastors specifically with whom he has developed strong friendships — among them Keith Norman of First Baptist Church-Broad Avenue, and Craig Strickland, founding minister of Hope Presbyterian Church. He recalls a tribute dinner given in honor of Strickland’s 25th anniversary at Hope. When Greenstein arrived for the dinner, Norman, who is African American, called him over and the two were standing in the back of the room. “Craig said, ‘Why are y’all back here? You’re going to be speaking,’” Greenstein remembers. “And Keith told him, ‘This is where they put all the blacks and the Jews!’ We laughed about it and I think that little vignette tells just how far we’ve come.”
Fostering deep relationships means delving beneath friendship’s surface. “It’s not just about who you go to lunch with,” says Greenstein, “but who you travel with. In 2010 we gathered a diverse group of 10 pastors and their wives — good friends who really trust and love each other — and traveled to Israel together. A lot of folks make a big deal about their approach to faith but don’t go beyond their silo. Here, we go farther and deeper.”
Norman says his first contact with Greenstein took place at a prayer vigil for the city more than 10 years ago. “Micah was singing and I commented, ‘a real live David!’ recalls Norman. “Micah became an icon to me from that moment because of his genuine spirit and kind heart.” Describing Greenstein’s gift for facilitating harmonious relationships and his role as “the great gatherer,” Norman adds, “Micah thinks deeply and openly and invites others to dialogue with him about hard issues in non-condemning ways.”
Strickland also met Greenstein a decade ago. “We were at the first Tear Down the Walls concert at the train station on behalf of the National Civil Rights Museum,” he says. The event was created by Rick Recht, the top-touring artist in contemporary Jewish rock music, to inspire and educate youth about ways to eliminate bias and prejudice. “Micah has successfully used that concert over multiple years to promote civil rights in Memphis. He has been the model for interfaith clergy to follow.”
Strickland was also among the pastors who traveled to Israel with Greenstein, and in a note to the rabbi, he described the journey’s impact. “Through dialogue and disagreement . . . we only drew closer. As a result of the trip, [we] reached a level of understanding and love for one another needed not just in Israel. The world needs it. Memphis needs it. Not in a couple of generations. Right now.”
“Maybe that land is Memphis.”
Greenstein passes the credit to others, going back to events surrounding the death of Dr. Martin Luther King. “The Memphis Ministers Association took a brave stand marching to City Hall to stand up for the sanitation workers,” he says. “Through the years, the bonds among ministers have become so strong, that we can’t imagine one demonizing another, or anyone condoning it.” Moving to the present, he says, “Name another city in America where a Methodist church, Heartsong in Cordova, offered its space to an Islamic mosque under construction, and now the congregations share an interfaith park. Other cities may have programs and make proclamations,” he declares, “but when it comes to real relationships, you won’t find them like the ones we have here.”
Ministers also unite on common causes, most recently forming Clergy for Equitable Education, which represents more than 50 faith leaders across all religious and denominational lines who are united in the belief that quality public education is a moral imperative for all children in Shelby County.
No matter what our path to God, Greenstein urges, “we should be building a better tomorrow for Memphis and the world. Remember in the Bible where God tells Abraham, ‘Go to a land that I will show you’? A lot of us think that land is Israel. But it doesn’t say that. Maybe what God is saying is, ‘You and I will create a land together, one that I will show you based on our mutual work.’ Maybe that land is Memphis.”
No doubt Memphis has its share of what he calls “bad religion,” which destroys in the name of God. Its biggest weapons are extremism and indifference. “I always tell the kids I teach here at Temple Israel: Dare to be different in the face of indifference. Dare to be passionate. It’s hard to be a passionate moderate.” Despite the ugliness that can rear its head in the name of God, he declares, “Religious ideas are still the best for building a better world.”
To that end, Temple Israel is reaching beyond nation’s boundaries into Cambodia to champion the education of that nation’s girls ages 14 to 17. They achieve this by partnering with the Harpswell Foundation, an American-based organization that provides education, housing, and leadership training to children and young women in the developing world. The idea was conceived by native Memphian Alan Lightman, an MIT professor, author, and product of Temple Israel. “Only boys are allowed to go to university and get educated in Cambodia,” says Greenstein, “because only boys can sleep in Buddhist temples. So we built the first dormitories in Phnom Penh, Cambodia’s capital city, and we selected 84 girls who are at the top of their class.” Empowering girls educationally, he adds, is one of the global civil rights issues of our time and Lightman’s “genius and belief is making it happen,” he says. “I know we don’t have to leave the airport in Memphis to address problems, but we can learn from models in other places. Our work in Cambodia shows the power of education and the power of hope. And that’s how I think it relates to Memphis.”
“I know you may be surprised to see me and the Jewish people in heaven . . .”
As he tries to connect rather than divide people through bonds of faith, Greenstein is often called to speak at other churches. He participates in a pastor exchange program and in Theology on Tap, a young adult ministry held in pubs and sponsored by the Catholic Diocese. He’s also a regular contributor to the Calvary Episcopal Lenten Series.
He believes any theology that focuses mainly on heaven and hell, rather than seeking to advance God’s kingdom here on earth, and to exclude others from that kingdom, is based on a narrow image of God. As he told his audience at one Calvary lecture, “Two thirds of the world are not Christian, and there are more Hindus, Buddhists, and Taoists than there are members of Jesus’ own faith, Judaism. The challenge for our time is to affirm religious truth without defining it for others.”
During that same lecture, Greenstein said that more than one person had told him, “It’s because I love you and don’t want you to burn in hell that you need to be saved my way.”
“Yet what does that theology say about God?” he asked at the lecture and again in this interview. “A God who would whip you and burn you is a God who is into child abuse. That is not the Loving Parent, the God of love and praise that we worship.”
In speaking to evangelical audiences, he takes the heaven-hell issue a couple of steps further, saying, “I know you may be surprised to see me and the Jewish people in heaven,” then he adds with a smile, “I just hope you won’t be disappointed!” And finally, “If the only way to heaven is via the ‘my way or hell’ theology, then is Gandhi burning in hell?”
Worrying about heaven, he adds, is not only unnecessary but also detracts from what God wants us to do in this lifetime. To those who “talk about having a relationship with God, as if they’re going steady with Him” he suggests, “Think of how God needs us. Let go of self-absorption and materialism and focus on God’s message of light, love, and hope. Our spiritual horizons are small when we view God’s world only through Jewish or Christian theology. Obviously, God is much bigger. It’s not just important that we believe in one God, but how we treat each other.”
To Greenstein, the religion of Jesus — or Judaism — is near and dear to his heart, while the religion about Jesus “is another path to God, with a completely different understanding of sin. In Judaism, sin is something you do, not something you are. We don’t believe you need a blood savior to get right with God.”
That said, he avows his love for Christians “because their beliefs are what make them the generous, selfless people I know.” And he recalls a lesson he learned years ago while in Boise, Idaho. While staying in a hotel room, he discovered The Book of Mormon instead of the usual Bible. “While it was too weird and outlandish for me to embrace,” he says, “the Mormon people were something else altogether. I found them to be among the most honest, ethical people I’d met and I learned at the age of 25 not to judge people by their theology. It’s how you live it, how you make your faith shine through.”
With that same metaphor he recalls an essay by the late Unitarian pastor, Forrester Church, titled “The Cathedral of the World.” “Church said that we all stand in that cathedral, and each stained glass represents a different faith tradition,” explains Greenstein. “God is the light outside. The fundamentalists say the light shines through their window only. The fanatic breaks all the other windows except his. But some are able to see this light shining through all the windows.
When you see the faces of others, you’re supposed to see the image of God smiling back. I think a lot of religious people haven’t learned that yet.
“[Bear Bryant] is like a god down there.”
Maintaining a packed work routine, the rabbi has little time for leisure activities. He does, however run in marathons because they help clear his mind, and he tries to avoid theological discussions with other runners. “If someone beside me asks what I do, I tell them I work with funeral homes – which is true; I do a funeral every week." And his response usually works. “They hear that and I don’t have to talk anymore!”
Most spare time is spent with his family. He met his wife, Sheril, at summer camp when she was 9 and he was 12. As teens he joked with her that someday they’d get married. As serendipity would have it, they ran into each other on, of all places, King David Street in Jerusalem when he was finishing his first year of rabbinical school and she was enjoying the trip after graduating from Stephens College. “That meeting was enough to turn a skeptic into a mystic,” smiles Greenstein. “We were engaged within six months, and have been married 24 years.”
He recalls courting her in her hometown of Montgomery, Alabama. “We’d go to receptions in the homes of doctors, lawyers, educated people, and there’d be this picture of a guy on the wall. If I had asked who it was, that would have blown the courtship!” he laughs, referring to Alabama’s revered football coach, Paul "Bear" Bryant, who “is like a god down there,” adds Greenstein.
Sheril, who owns a special events business called Shindigs by Sheril, helped put her husband through rabbinical school. Today they’re the parents of three children, Cara, 21; Jake, 19; and Julia, 14.
“The rough valleys . . .”
Although “richly blessed,” Greenstein knows firsthand that life holds disease, death, and heartbreak. He faced all three in 2007 when his father died of lymphoma at age 71. Howard Greenstein was a rabbi near Boston, in Dayton, Ohio, and in Jacksonville, Florida, and with his wife Lenore raised their son and two daughters. “In August he was leading a congregation and playing tennis,” recalls the son. “Two months later he died in my arms. He was a real renaissance rabbi and was my model in every way. He taught me what he lived, that the journey is the goal, not the end game.” Describing that loss as the “roughest valley” of his life, he holds close God’s love and promise. “He said He will be with us through it all, even the rough valleys. That to me is what faith is all about.”
“What took you so long?”
On a recent Sunday morning, Rabbi Greenstein is introduced in the Fellowship Hall of First Baptist Church at East Parkway and Poplar as part of an interfaith pulpit exchange. He speaks to a group of mainly middle-aged and older members and visitors, who listen as he tells them what happened 75 years ago this very day, November 10th: Kristallnicht, when the Nazis destroyed thousands of Jewish businesses and synagogues, littering the streets with shards of broken glass. “That was really the beginning of the Holocaust,” says Greenstein. “But look at us now. I imagine God is smiling but also saying, ‘What took you so long?’”
His talk is followed by a question-and-answer session. One woman asks, “What do you like most about Memphis?” He remembers a moment from 21 years ago when his daughter was born, and he was picking up some photographs at Walgreens. He said the clerk there asked his name and when he told her, she replied, “I know Micah,” and she proceeded to quote the Bible verse, Micah 6:8: . . .what does the Lord require of you but to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.”
That moment said a lot about this city, Greenstein tells the group that day — the love and goodness in everyday people. Sure, we have problems, but undergirding it all, the rabbi sees a strong community of faith. “The notion of a Baptist minister and Jewish rabbi exchanging pulpits on each other’s Sabbaths is a foreign concept to any other lifetime in the history of our two faiths,” he says. “We may have a long way to go but we have come so far. It’s important to remember that."
Marilyn Sadler is a senior editor of Memphis magazine.