After graduating from the University of Kansas with a degree in business and a minor in French, Craig Lewis began working in customer service management for a diesel engine company, and also did credit and collections work.
He had also previously studied business management in France.
That does not sound like the ideal path to becoming a rabbi who now serves in Chattanooga, but he soon began to focus on trying to manage the religious aspects of life, including by doing Jewish education teaching.
“My mother was a Jewish educator, and my brother also went into Jewish education,” he said.
“I thought my career would go in a different direction, until I realized my greatest joy in work was doing part-time teaching jobs in Informal Jewish education.”
He added that he knew he was having a change of focus in his life because he was using all of his vacation and sick days in order to work at weekend youth retreats in Simi Valley, Calif., while living in Orange County.
“The community and the learning there inspired me to turn my goals to making this a full-time vocation,” he said. “The final push came soon after Sept. 11 (2001), when I wanted to commit to a career that has meaning. I applied to the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, and soon my wife and I were in Jerusalem where my official studies began.”
He was 28 at the time, and after graduating from the school in Jerusalem and Cincinnati, he began serving congregations in the Midwest, California and Lincoln, Neb.
In July 2017, he moved to Chattanooga to begin serving as the rabbi of Mizpah Congregation on McCallie Avenue.
So far, this Kansas basketball fan and Kansas City baseball fan is enjoying being in Tennessee.
“We love Chattanooga, we just wish there was a Trader Joe’s,” he said with a laugh regarding the popular grocery chain.
As Rabbi Lewis talked over the phone a few days before leading his congregation through Rosh Hashanah, or the Jewish New Year, he said this is always a special time of year for him as well getting to conduct the meaningful service.
“Because some people you don’t see the rest of the year, it’s a good time to catch up with the congregation,” he said. “There’s a festive atmosphere in people wishing each other a sweet and happy new year.
“And it’s the most elaborate service. It the only time in the year we use an organ. And it is a time when you are challenged to become more creative and thoughtful and try to find a message that captures the meaning of the season.”
Rosh Hashanah services were held last week, with the holiday lasting this year from the evening of Sept. 29 to the evening of Oct. 1.
He said it is a time of celebration and renewal and begins a 10-day period, called the Days of Awe, before Yom Kippur, or the Day of Atonement. The latter is being held this year from the evening of Oct. 8 to the evening of Oct. 9.
Considered the holiest day of the year in Judaism, Yom Kippur is observed to help a Jewish person wipe clean the slate of wrongdoing committed over the last year, and is a day of fasting, repentance and worship.
Rabbi Lewis said that during the period leading up to Yom Kippur, an observer of Judaism is supposed to go to others to whom he or she has taken unkind actions over the last year and ask for forgiveness.
He added that this is done in a variety of ways, and said that some Jewish people, in a way typical of most other people in today’s world, might put a blanket statement on their Facebook pages asking for forgiveness from all to whom they have done wrong.
Rabbi Lewis, citing information from Mike Dzik from the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, estimates there are approximately 1,500 people representing the various branches of Judaism living in the Chattanooga area.
Mizpah Congregation, a Reform Judaism congregation where Rabbi Lewis serves, worships in a landmark McCallie Avenue building, the Julius and Bertha Ochs Memorial Temple, which was dedicated in 1928.
It was built as a memorial gift by New York Times and Chattanooga Times publisher and former Chattanoogan Adolph Ochs, who often visited his former hometown regularly and died here while visiting in 1935. The worship facility was named in memory of his parents.
The structure was designed by architect Henry Beaumont Herts of New York, who designed or partnered in the design of such structures as several New York City theaters and the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Chattanooga architects Charles Bearden and, after
Mr. Bearden’s death, William Crutchfield had supervised construction.
The tympanum decorative wall relief over the McCallie Avenue entrance was done by sculptor Duncan Smith. One online source describes a Duncan Smith from that time period as a Charlottesville, Va.-based muralist, but further research would be required to determine if he is the same person.
Besides helping his congregation look inward through the practices of Reform Judaism inside its temple, Rabbi Lewis also believes in looking outward.
He is involved in a local interfaith clergy group with those of other religions, including Christianity, and welcomes and hosts Christian church groups or classes or other kinds of groups studying Judaism.
“I think it is important that, even if we don’t agree on theology, we understand each other,” he said. “It is what we do to make our community better that is important.”
While signs and acts of prejudice and racism have in recent years continued against many groups and people around the world, from Jewish people to those of other religions, Rabbi Lewis said he tries to remain hopeful and focus on areas that can make a positive difference.
That can include everything from the synagogue’s work to help victims of homelessness and poverty and other individuals who are isolated or ostracized in some way. The congregation took up a collection for the Chattanooga Food Bank during its Jewish New Year celebration, and also hosted a spirituality night in connection with the Chattanooga Pride March.
“There is always hope,” Rabbi Lewis said regarding combatting the world’s prejudices. “It has gotten ugly, but it has been uglier.
Hopefully it will never get as ugly as it used to be.
“We have a long way to go, but there is always something to do.”