Rabbi Craig Lewis: Classy reform rabbi in Chattanooga

Lewis: “In Chattanooga, we do have very strong synagogues, a very strong federation and a lot of folks committed to it.”

 Rabbi Lewis and his wife, Jennifer, celebrating with their son Eden as he became bar mitzvah on June 12, 2021. (photo credit: COURTESY RABBI LEWIS)
Rabbi Lewis and his wife, Jennifer, celebrating with their son Eden as he became bar mitzvah on June 12, 2021.
(photo credit: COURTESY RABBI LEWIS)

In Reform Judaism, a synagogue consisting of 300 or fewer families is considered an A-Class congregation. The career of Rabbi Craig Lewis of the Mizpah Congregation in Chattanooga, Tennessee, has been mostly spent serving those synagogues. 

Rabbi Lewis began his journey in a larger Jewish community in the American Midwest: the greater Kansas City area. Born in Kansas City, he was raised in the suburb of Prairie Village, Kansas. 

The Jewish community of Kansas City began in 1839 when Jews settled in Wyandotte, Missouri, which was renamed Kansas City in 1889. The community founded its first synagogue, B’nai Jehudah, in 1870. 

By the 21st century, many Jews from the Kansas City area had moved to suburbs like Overland Park, Kansas, which is considered the center of the area’s Jewish community and is estimated to consist of 22,100 individuals. 

As Lewis explains, “There is one synagogue in Kansas City. The rest are in the Kansas suburbs.”

 The Chattanooga Choo Choo: The city’s most famous landmark. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)
The Chattanooga Choo Choo: The city’s most famous landmark. (credit: WIKIPEDIA)

Lewis came from a family long established in the area. “I know it goes back at least to my great-grandparents on my mother’s side.” 

After being raised in Prairie Village, Lewis attended the University of Kansas and studied business administration with a minor in French. After graduating in three years, he attended the Ecole Superieure de Commerce in Clermond-Ferrand, France. 

During his stay there, the Slamas, a Tunisian Jewish family, invited him for Shabbat and holiday dinners. When Lewis’s parents visited him for Passover, the Slamas invited them as well. “My father said that it was his favorite Passover memory, being with the Slama family. ‘We did it [the Seder] in three languages – Hebrew, French and English.’” 

After returning to the States, while working at a job managing customer service at a company in southern California, his attachment to Judaism grew. “All along, I was working part time in Jewish education in Orange County…I ended up really loving it,” he recounts.

As time passed, he decided to become a Reform rabbi and applied to Hebrew Union College (HUC). He explains, “The experience of being in Jewish education and wanting to do more...I asked myself why is this a hobby and not my actual life.” 

“In Chattanooga, we do have very strong synagogues, a very strong federation and a lot of folks committed to it…I feel pretty confident that my wife and I want to stay here, and I’m hoping long term.”

Rabbi Craig Lewis

Becoming a reform rabbi

The September 11 attacks in New York cemented his desire to pursue the rabbinate. “9/11 happened, and it sort of expedited things for me. I wanted my work to have meaning, to be fulfilling.” 

As part of his five-year program, Lewis served as a student rabbi for small Jewish communities in Mattoon, Illinois, and Muncie, Indiana. These appointments served as rabbinical internships. He worked as a student rabbi while handling his HUC course work. 

“I went once a month and on the High Holy days to Mattoon…Mainly it was organizing, planning and leading the services. We always had a Torah study on Saturday.” 

Mattoon, a small city in eastern Illinois, had a Jewish congregation of some 20 to 30 families. 

HUC also sent him on his second rabbinical internship to Muncie, a city located in east central Indiana with a congregation of 70 to 80 families. 

“That was twice a month… [I did] services, Torah study. We would do lessons with the kids on Sundays.” 

Upon ordination in 2008, HUC sent him to their campus in Los Angeles to interview for his first rabbinical position. 

“We had a list of congregations looking to hire. You could do up to 12 [congregations] for three days...They were one-hour interviews. It was like speed dating almost, the first round…[I] ended up in California.” 

Lewis served as an assistant rabbi at Congregation Shir Ha-Ma’a lot in Irvine, California, a congregation with approximately 650 families. “I felt like I wanted the experience of learning under another rabbi first…Also to have someone I see as a mentor…I felt that I wasn’t ready at the time [to be a solo rabbi],” he explains. 

After three years at Shir Ha’Maalot, Lewis sought another congregation. “It was a good match, but after three years I was ready to move on.”

The next phase in his rabbinical career led him to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Lincoln, Nebraska, the state capital. Founded in 1884, due to its address the synagogue is known as the South Street Temple. 

This congregation served as a sea change for Lewis. He had gone from the West Coast to the heart of the Midwest and red state America. He had also become a solo rabbi at a congregation with 125 families. Lewis served there for six years.

The Jews of the South Street Temple worked in a variety of professions. “A lot of people were connected to the university [University of Nebraska]; many others worked in the state government. One guy was a lobbyist. School teachers…Lawyers. A collection of doctors.” 

One family, the rabbi recalls, engaged in cattle ranching. 

Serving as a rabbi in Nebraska gave him the opportunity to attend college football games. “Bob Nevsky [one of his congregants] had seats under the awning, so if it was raining or snowing, you were covered.” 

The benefits of serving a smaller congregation presented themselves to Lewis. “I always maintained, ‘Doesn’t a Jew in Chattanooga, Tennessee, deserve a good rabbi?’ I like the…ability to reach congregants more directly…You can have more deep connections with people…There’s a rich Jewish life…There’s fewer committee meetings, so it frees up more time to go home and be with my family.” 

Lewis also encountered snobbery from rabbis with larger congregations. “So I’d go to a convention, this was just when I accepted the job in Lincoln, and a rabbi from a large congregation somewhere in the northeast of America… [after being told where I was going] his next words were, ‘I’m sorry.’ That’s not the only time I heard a comment like that,” he says. 

After six years in Nebraska, Lewis looked for another congregation. “It was a hard decision... [I asked] what the future prospects of the congregation were.” 

He attempted a return to the Kansas City area but found his next congregation in the Mizpah Synagogue in Chattanooga, Tennessee, a state considered to be in the Deep South of the United States. The synagogue has a membership of 235 families. 

Like his appointment in Nebraska, Lewis found himself as a progressive in a conservative state. “The congregations themselves [Lincoln and Chattanooga] were fairly progressive leaning, even though there was one congregant [in Lincoln] who always wore his Rush Limbaugh Polo shirt to Torah study every weekend. He let it be known that if I [went] too far in my comments in one direction, he would call me out, appropriately so…It was always good to have his perspective, too.”

Mizpah Congregation has a long history. It was founded in 1866, a year after the end of the American Civil War. The synagogue benefited from the influence of Julius Ochs, an early member, and his family. His son Adolph Ochs initially purchased the Chattanooga Times and transformed it into a successful paper. Ochs later bought The New York Times and made it into the US’s paper of record. 

Mizpah changed its location three times in its initial years. In 1928, Adolph Ochs purchased the land for the synagogue’s third and current location on 923 McCallie Avenue in Chattanooga. Its Georgian and Colonial architecture led to the building’s eventual designation in 1979 as a Tennessee Historical Preservation Site. 

Mizpah was also influenced by Isaac M. Wise, the man considered to be the founder of American Reform Judaism. One of his sons, Jonah Wise, served as one of Mizpah’s rabbis. 

In Lincoln and in Chattanooga, Lewis has invested enormous effort in interfaith outreach. He has lectured in churches about Jewish holidays and the fundamental beliefs of the Jewish religion and is a chaplain for the Chattanooga Police Department. 

“There’s not a large number of rabbis, so to have colleagues in other faiths is essential…That opens the doors to programs and discussions so that we can truly understand each other. I think it’s important to understand the differences between us but also the similarities that we didn’t know were there.” 

He also describes how big cities pull Jews away from the smaller ones. “Especially within the Jewish communities, [people] are leaving the smaller cities and moving to the next larger city among them. Atlanta has seen a big boom of late. The smaller synagogues and Jewish communities [are] shrinking. [In Chattanooga], we’re not feeling it as much.” 

Lewis also talks about the hardships on rabbinical families required to move from city to city. “[It was] very hard. You have the heartbreak of saying goodbye to people that you’ve known...I never want to move again,” he asserts. 

Lewis discusses his hopes for the future. “In Chattanooga, we do have very strong synagogues, a very strong federation and a lot of folks committed to it…I feel pretty confident that my wife and I want to stay here, and I’m hoping long term.”  ■