5 Star Stories: Temple Israel

Published: Dec. 21, 2022 at 8:42 AM CST
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. (WMC) - Hanukkah -- which means “dedication” in Hebrew -- began this year on Sunday night, December 18 and ends the evening of December 26.

So what better way to honor the “Festival of Lights” than with a 5 Star Story that centers around Tennessee’s first and largest synagogue, Temple Israel, and how a museum inside the synagogue not only illustrates the religious and creative expressions of Jewish people through the centuries, but also details the life of an ordinary man who was dedicated to extraordinary change.

Temple Israel, founded in Memphis in 1853 as Congregation B’nai Israel (Hebrew for Children of Israel), is the only Reform synagogue in the city and home to the oldest and largest Jewish congregation throughout the Mid-South.

According to Senior Rabbi Micah Greenstein, “It was founded opposite the front door of the Convention Center downtown.” A national historic marker now marks that spot.

Congregation B'nai Israel
Congregation B'nai Israel(Action News 5)

Now located on East Massey Road, Temple Israel is also home to the Herta and Dr. Justin H. Adler Judaica Collection in the Temple Museum located on the synagogue’s second floor.

Their daughter and Temple Museum Board member Susan Adler Thorp said her parents were Holocaust survivors who in the 1950s began collecting Judaica -- art and religious objects which reflect Jewish life and culture.

“And it was their way of bringing the Jewish community back together again, a very small way, but very symbolic way,” explained Thorp.

The Adler Judaica Collection includes roughly 175 pieces the couple found on their travels throughout the world and donated to the Temple Museum in 1994.

Rabbi Greenstein says the museum is meant to edify and enlighten: “To educate the greater Memphis community, not just the Jewish community, but the greater arts community on how art is a medium, like music, to teach eternal lessons and values that ground us as humans.”

The museum also houses traveling exhibits, but following COVID closures and the death of George Floyd in Minnesota, the museum board wanted to focus more on healing and leadership through social justice.

“And so with further discussion it dawned on us, ‘Why are we looking outside of Temple Israel? Why don’t we look inside?”

The ”Righteous Among Men: Rabbi James A. Wax -- A Life Dedicated to Social Justice” multi-media exhibit tells the story of the former Senior Rabbi who led Temple Israel through some of this country’s and city’s most turbulent times.

“He wasn’t a marcher, he wasn’t a person or a firebrand preacher who wanted to make a public display of emotion. He wanted to resolve the sanitation strike and worked hard at it behind the scenes,” Greenstein recounted.

On display at Temple Israel
On display at Temple Israel(Action News 5)

But on April 6, 1968, as president of the Memphis Ministers Association, Rabbi Wax famously confronted then-Memphis Mayor Loeb over his refusal to end the sanitation workers strike following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

As Greenstein expressed, “He’s known as making the front page of the New York Times and every network channel waving his finger at the mayor saying, ‘There are laws higher than the state of Tennessee.’”

But Rabbi Greenstein noted that Rabbi Wax’s position was very unpopular at the time. As he put it, “When he confronted Mayor Loeb, he caught holy hell.”

Rabbi Wax received over 120 letters of condemnation after that confrontation, “inviting” him to leave the city. Many of those letters are part of the exhibit, as are the 81 letters of support Rabbi Wax also received, one of them from Temple member and museum docent Barbara Lapides and her late husband.

“We wanted Rabbi Wax to know how proud we were of him and how much we appreciated and respected his taking the stand that he had taken,” Lapides explained.

Rabbi Wax’s social justice concerns also centered around a subject that was considered taboo by many back in those days: mental health.

“He said that mental health is as important as physical health in the 1960s. Now we all talk about mental health. He wanted to give voice to the voiceless,” Greenstein stated.

The story of Rabbi Wax is still a relevant topic for museum visitors today.

“I hope they learn about a man who considered himself just an ordinary man but who did extraordinary things at a time of great crisis in this city,” said Lapides.

While Rabbi Greenstein added, “This exhibit is not meant just to review the past. It’s meant for each of us to address the present in light of the past. It’s about the power of one person to make a difference. And as King or Rabbi Wax would say, you don’t have to be a rabbi or a minister. You just have to have the courage to care.”

The Temple Israel Museum, celebrating and commemorating the Jewish experience, diversity and human dignity by preserving history, is something that makes us proud to call the Mid-South home.

The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday and Sunday, as well as the first Friday of the month. For details about times and information about Temple Israel, the Museum and Rabbi James. A. Wax, click here.

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