The Jewish Observer
News from Middle Tennessee's Jewish Community | Friday, June 21, 2024
The Jewish Observer

Chai Lights: Congregation Micah Celebrates 18 Years of the Rabbis Rice

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The saying, “Time flies when you’re having fun,” could easily apply to Rabbis Philip “Flip” and Laurie Rice of Congregation Micah. The two will be celebrated next month for their 18 years of service, and to hear them talk, those years really have flown by. In fact, it was during their final interview that they learned they were expecting their third child, daughter Eden, who is now a senior in high school.

The position was initially open for just one rabbi, but the two decided to propose they serve together and share the role. “We decided to come clean and tell them we both just really wanted to work there,” says Rabbi Laurie, “They had just lost their senior rabbi and their half time assistant rabbi, so we presented ourselves as filling the one and a half positions.” Flip, who was the initial applicant, teases that it really was Laurie who sealed the deal. “They met me and liked me, and then they met her, and it was, ‘We like her, you can come.’”

That bold move was something that both Rices say helped them seal the deal. “The fact that the congregation rolled after the process had begun showed us it was at least innovative and alternative and was willing to talk to us,” says Flip. And Laurie agrees that it was the willingness to regroup and reconsider their options that appealed to them both. Flip says the ability to perform interfaith marriages was another key component of Micah’s philosophy that drew them in. “We wouldn’t have gotten past the first phone call unless it was clear we were going to do that,” he says.

Serving as a duo is something that has proved enriching for the Rices. They both say at the core of their relationship is mutual respect and trust. “A win for Flip reflects as a win for me,” says Laurie, “There’s no competitiveness. That sort of thing is just not there.” She says they also have carved out separate but complementary roles for themselves. “We each have things we enjoy. When we first came, we had portfolios we were both responsible for. But now we just have to make sure everything gets done.” Laurie’s mother, Sue Hochberg, says that dynamic extends beyond the professional. “They’re like frick and frack. They play off each other well, and have their strengths, but they don’t compete.”

There are also challenges in working together. “It’s fun to work with someone who has the same passion, similar values,” says Flip, “But those passions can also be frustrating because we don’t always think the same way. But even if we weren’t married, I’d want to work with a partner who loved what they did and wanted to help both of us grow.” But at the end of the day, Flip says working together fit with their vision of how they wanted to live together and raise their family, which now includes three nearly grown children.

Throughout the years there have been changes along the way, as with any growing institution. Both rabbis mention the typical concerns over maintaining an aging building, growing an endowment, retaining members, and running a school. But there are some constants, chief among them, Micah’s ability to appeal to a diverse population of Jews, interfaith couples, and even non-Jews. “To remain a place that is a mosaic and accepts all those voices is challenging,” says Flip. But Laurie says there is one overarching philosophy that keeps them focused. “There’s been a lot of tension around political leanings, and we have a motto here which Flip came up with which is ‘We keep politics off the bimah but not out of the building.’ So we’ll have a conversation about reproductive rights, or education or immigration, but not from the bimah or in a sermon where there’s no back and forth and an opportunity to chime in.”

One of the highlights of their tenure is the creation of Micah Children’s Academy, to which Flip credits Laurie. She in turn credits Flip with the growth of the religious school, along with director Julie Greenberg. They are also proud to have been instrumental in creating the Get Connected trip which sends teens to Israel. And there’s more. “We still consider ourselves leaders in interfaith stuff,” says Flip. Laurie points out the collaborative nature of the entire community of rabbis. “One of our collective highs is the community of Jewish clergy in Nashville. It was always okay, but in the last year it’s just become so lovely. We’re so lucky.”

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Micah is distinct in its ability to be diverse and inclusive and still be very Jewish in its outlook. Flip explains, “Lots of progressive, or Reform, or liberal Jews, no politically, but in their observance, feel the tension in the polarity of particularism and universalism. And I think Micah leans towards the universalism…We are a uniquely Jewish place, but it’s presented in a way anyone can tap into it. If you’re used to in any way a spiritual place, it’s not hard to enjoy the music.” But, says Laurie, it is important to note there is still plenty of opportunity for traditional Jewish customs. “There is room for creativity and entrepreneurship within the tradition itself. There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bath water. You can maintain the bones and be creative with it.”

While reflecting on the last 18 years, it is also important to look ahead. Laurie says she is particularly focused on the interpersonal nature of the work. “I really feel like I’m making a difference for someone in a pivotal moment in their life. So, whether it’s a lifecycle event or a counseling session or some way I can help them…I could that for another decade.” Flip echoes Laurie’s desire to continue helping more people. He becomes emotional relaying the story about a student who is on the autism spectrum and had proved challenging. “When we were on the bimah and we were passing the Torah from generation to generation, and I was ready for the morning to be over. I handed the Torah to him he said to me, ‘This is the most meaningful moment of my life.’”

Both rabbis said serving the congregation since October 7 has brought new challenges. “Being present for people, especially after this October 7, which was not what we signed up for,” says Flip, “This extra heaviness we’re dealing with and people’s emotional and mental health has been fulfilling and meaningful, but difficult. I’d love to navigate us through that the best we can as a community.” He would also like to continue growing educational opportunities for the teens in the community, as well as exploring the use of technology to bring services to more people.

Both rabbis are humbled to be honored, surprised that 18 years have passed, and look forward to many more years of serving the congregation and the Nashville Jewish community. The event honoring them, “Chai Lights,” is scheduled for March 2 at Congregation Micah. Below are reflections from colleagues, congregants, and lay leaders who have known them through the years.

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Cantor Josh Goldberg:

It has been such a positive experience for me. They both are creative and vibrant, and so willing to take risks. They have been supportive from the very first couple of months, letting me try different types of theme Shabbats from country, to 80s, to Debbie Friedman. They supported me starting Micahnections catering to millennials and Gen Z. They find different ways to serve all the members of the community through inreach and outreach and break down barriers. They honor tradition by are not bound by it.

Lynn Heady:

As a past president (twice), I have had the honor of working closely with both Rabbis. While they are very different in approach and process, their individual and collective beliefs are “open book” and this truly helps me (and others I know) in determining my Jewish path. They challenge me to be better and to contribute confidently to making the world better in ways that are complementary to who I am as a Jew.

Once anecdote: Rabbi Flip visited me in the hospital after a surgery. He was warm and supportive and during our visit, he happened to notice that my pitcher was out of water. This was not acceptable, and he marched to the nurse’s station to remedy this and to be sure it was always full. After that, I always had 2-3 pitchers in my room at a time! God knows what he said!

Lisa and Jay Levy:

We had the pleasure of traveling with them to Israel in 2012. They enriched the trip with their knowledge, perspectives, and enthusiasm.

We experienced the joy of them officiating at two Bat Mitzvahs for our daughters and one wedding. We were especially appreciative of Rabbi Laurie’s acting as remote clergy and facilitating a zoom wedding during covid.

We cherish the community they have built while at Congregation Micah. They create a warm and welcoming place for all. They even welcome our parents from out of town when they join us for services.

We appreciate their ongoing quest for enhancing spiritual experiences. Status quo is not in their vocabulary. They are very special people and we feel so very fortunate that they have been a part of our lives for the last 18 years.

Rebecca Milman:

Simply put, we LOVE the Rabbis Rice. They have become our spiritual guides, for they continually remind us of the constant presence of our Jewish history in the present day. More often than not, their sermons and insightful comments shared during services invite deep conversation afterwards. The Rice’s not only inspire us to do more but also to think more.

We are especially grateful for their accessibility and compassion during the time of our deepest sorrow, the loss of our 22-year-old daughter. We certainly could not have managed without them.

We can’t close without mentioning how much we appreciate their fabulous sense of humor and their strong commitment to social justice.

Eden Rice, daughter

Growing up with both of my parents as rabbis at Congregation Micah has been a unique and enriching experience. The synagogue, more than just a place of worship, has become an extension of our home. Witnessing my parents' commitment to their roles as spiritual leaders has shaped my perspective on community, values, and faith.

My parents have always done an amazing job at balancing their work and home life. Growing up, there was nothing I loved more than my dad letting me light Shabbat candles at Micah during Friday night services or awaiting the day he’d bring home the Purim script each year and tell me I get to be a princess.

Baking various types of challah with my mom has always been a cherished tradition that extended beyond our family to the congregants we would then host for Shabbat dinner. This shared endeavor not only created delicious memories but also reinforced the easy blend of our personal and communal lives.

My parents never failed to make our home a welcoming space for both our immediate family and the extended family within the congregation. While dinner conversations often circled back to topics involving work and the congregation, my parents consistently prioritized my brothers and me. Despite the demands of their roles as rabbis, they never failed to put our needs and concerns at the forefront. Their ability to navigate the delicate balance between professional responsibilities and family life created a nurturing environment and I couldn’t be happier than to have grown up in such a loving community.

Kerry Tapia, Executive Director

Working with them has been an incredibly enriching experience. I was there when they first came to Micah and saw the joy they brought to their work and to the congregation. I worked with them for several years, and then left for 10 years (to Touro Synagogue in New Orleans) but decided to come back to Micah because I knew how incredible this community was and how rewarding it is to work Rabbis Rice. They're very creative, and it brings out the creativity in others.

Their approachability is pretty amazing. It sounds simple, but it's more. They make it easy - organic, to be part of the community. To get to know them. To find your place at Micah. Everyone wants to feel at home, and they make Micah a home.

The Rices resonate with people because this congregation is a family. It is pretty special to have a married couple leading our congregation. That automatically makes it feel more connected. More familiar. I like the fact that when I leave my home and go to work, I am entering my second home.

There are too many highlights that come to mind, but I automatically started to think about how there are so many sides. On the light side, I remember all the fun Purim spiels that the rabbis wrote and how fun it is to share that with the community - in costume. With laughter. With Joy.

On the heavier side, I think about all the hard moments in our members' lives, and how our rabbis have been there. They're part of our lives.

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