The following article is taken from the November 2009 issue of the Main Street Journal. Click “Subscribe Online” above to start your subscription.
Rabbi Micah Greenstein: The Memphis Ambassador
By: Jonathan Lindberg
Last month I sat down for lunch with Rabbi Micah Greenstein with the intention of discussing his ever-expanding role of building solidarity and understanding among the diverse faiths in Memphis. Those that have spent any time with Micah will understand the following confession – I never got around to the interview.
Two hours later, Micah had learned as much about me as I had about him. And then the realization – this is the reason Micah has become such a pivotal figure when it comes to harmony and diversity in Memphis – he is a leader with a genuine love for all humanity, despite background or ethnicity or class. With Micah, his love for others is infectious. Though he is a man of great accomplishment, he strives in all things to place others above himself.
In a culture so marred by self-serving and ego, it is a breath of fresh air.
It should come then as little surprise that since moving to Memphis in 1991 to serve as Assistant Rabbi at Temple Israel, the largest and oldest synagogue in Tennessee (In 2000 Micah became the eighth Senior Rabbi of Temple Israel), Micah Greenstein has become one of, if not the leading voice within the Memphis faith community. Twice he has served as President of the Memphis Ministers Association; he sits on the Board of Directors of the National Civil Rights Museum, The United Way of the Mid-South, Memphis Light Gas & Water, the Junior League of Memphis and the Jewish Historical Society of Memphis. He serves as an adjunct faculty member at Memphis Theological Seminary. And beyond filling his own pulpit at Temple Israel, Micah is a frequent pulpit guest at numerous Christian churches, from Bellevue Baptist in Bartlett to Calvary Episcopal Church Downtown.
For these reasons and many others, Main Street Journal is proud to recognize Rabbi Micah Greenstein as the 2009 Solidarity Receiptant, for his outstanding and tireless efforts to bring cooperation between diverse communities in Memphis.
Micah grew up the son of a respected Rabbi. Listen to him talk about his father and his childhood, spent partly in Boston and then Dayton and then Jacksonville and you will discover where the respect for his position and standing comes from. It is a responsibility informed by his deep faith, the desire to step out and reach into lives much different than his.
“In order for dialogue among different faiths to ever happen,” he writes, “we must all be willing to concede that none of us alone can ever know as much as all of us together.”
To watch Micah walk through a room is to witness a public figure with armfuls of charm. In fact, Micah graduated from the Kennedy School at Harvard and seriously considered a political career. Fortunately, a Harvard professor pulled him aside and steered him toward a clerical role. To listen to Micah speak though is to hear a deep and compassionate philosopher with a genuine reverence for God and a deep-seeded concern for mankind.
Nowhere is that passion more evident than when discussing unity and understanding, touching the lives of the downcast and the forgotten. At lunch, Micah raises his hands in the air, speaking with passion. In the broader Christian community, to which Micah works to connect, this message is known as the social gospel. To Micah, it is simply a way of thinking, living and believing.
“Being on God’s side means asserting that God has put us here at this time and in this place to heal broken hearts and lift up the fallen because God has no other hands than ours to do just that.”
During the warm days of early September, Micah led the efforts to organize the fourth annual Tear Down the Walls concert at the newly restored Levitt Shell in Overton Park. The event, which featured Jewish Rocker Rick Recht and Gospel singers Courtney Franklin and Karen Brown has become wildly popular. The concert attracted thousands of people from Christian and Jewish communities, leaders and congregants from diverse racial backgrounds and creeds.
That Temple Israel in East Memphis and New Direction Church in Hickory Hill and Hope Presbyterian Church in Cordova could stand represented on one stage and express love for one another is a testament to the vision and hope Micah projects on the City of Memphis.
It is both unique and meaningful in its impact.
“Rabbi Micah, to me, embodies what it means to embrace diversity. He puts his time and energy into efforts that bring diverse groups of people together for meaningful engagement. His message is universal and appeals to people of all religions, races and creeds.” Rachel Shankman, Director of Facing History Memphis.
Five years ago, this magazine took over an event called A Prayer Dinner for Israel. The event was started twenty-eight years ago by the late Ed McAteer with strong support from the Christian community. As organizers, our interest was to see both the Christian and Jewish communities come together to express their solidarity and love. Micah was the first Memphis Rabbi to whom we reached out. Through his support, Temple Israel immediately became an active partner in these efforts. Five years later, the evening is attending by leaders and congregants of both the Christian and Jewish communities with strong and growing numbers. During one program, Micah led the congregation in prayer. To hear Micah sing the Torah is to be deeply moved. I have heard him officiate at Temple Israel. But on this night, Christians and Jews stood together worshiping side by side. It was moving, both by its impact and substance.
“Human beings are God’s language, which is why whatever befalls our city and world, the religious response is what matters most.”
Leaders are measured in part by the relationships they develop. Within the faith community, few leaders have reached across so many diverse lines in order to build meaningful relationships as has Micah Greenstein.
I asked Arnold Perl, who served as Temple Board President, about the impact of Micah on this community. Arnold said, “Micah makes me proud to be Jewish.” I have heard this expressed by countless others within the Jewish community. Kevin Kane, President of the Memphis Convention & Visitors Bureau, who has worked with Micah on various boards, told me Micah is the perfect example of what it means to be a Memphis Ambassador.
Steve Montgomery, Senior Pastor of Idlewild Presbyterian Church remembers, “When I first arrived in Memphis ten years ago, Micah was the first clergy person to call me up and take me out to lunch. We both saw that we need to spend more time breaking down barriers rather than using religion as a divisive force in our community.”
It is well-known after the horrendous 2008 Lester Street killings where six family members were brutally murdered in one home, pastors and leaders from the faith community gathered at the Greenstein home to talk and pray. As Micah saw it, this was not a Christian catastrophe or an African-American tragedy. These murders touched the heart of humanity impacting all of Memphis. Out of that meeting those leaders decided a prayer service at Mississippi Boulevard Church was needed for the entire community. With love as his motivation, Micah helped lead the way.
Micah likes to tell others that he practices the religion of Jesus – Judaism. His faith is integral to the person he is – a Rabbi, a husband, a father and a sought out leader. He writes, “Our task as people of faith is to do the most we can with the time we have in the place that we are and leave the rest to God.”
This is solidarity.
A great leader casts vision and shows the way. For those of us seeking purpose in living, those words bring clarity. For a city with deep roots of a strong faith in God, words like that bring hope. For a world that looks too often to what divides rather than what brings us together, those words should challenge us.
For Rabbi Micah Greenstein, there is no other way to live.