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
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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.”