Rabbi Laurie Rice ‘01
Congregation Micah, Nashville, TN
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I grew up in Los Angeles with two Jewish parents and four Jewish grandparents. We belonged to a synagogue, but we were a family assimilated so much so that one of my fondest holiday memories from childhood was Christmas. We celebrated Passover annually with close friends at their home, but I cannot remember ever having a Shabbat dinner at my home. We did travel as a family on a congregational trip to Israel when I was in the 5th grade which I remember clearly and fondly.
I attended Northwestern University for undergrad as a History major with a minor in Slavic Languages and Literatures. My plan was to graduate and take the foreign service exam. After studying the Russian language for three years, I applied as an intern with the JDC to work with Russian olim preparing to make Aliyah to Israel. I was all set to spend the summer of ’93 in Moscow until tensions and unrest rose to a heightened level in the spring of ’93 such that the JDC no longer planned to send interns for the summer. Instead, they offered me the opportunity to work with newly arrived Russian Jews in Jerusalem. I jumped at the chance.
Needless to say, I ended up in Israel that summer by chance, but it changed the trajectory of my life. I fell in love with Israel, with Judaism, and with the Jewish people. I had always been Jewish, but now I felt Jewish. I began to own my identity in a whole new way. That spark that can only be ignited from time spent in the land of Israel was strongly burning within me when I returned for my senior year of college. I sought out the local Reform synagogue in Evanston, and it happened that the associate Rabbi, Eleanor Smith, was a woman, a Northwestern grad, and brilliant (now an accomplished physician as well). I attended services, studied with Rabbi Smith, and prepared to celebrate an adult bat mitzvah by reading Torah. I was fairly certain that I wanted to become a rabbi by the time graduation came around, but the decision carried such gravity that I felt I needed to give it time to be sure. I spent the next two years working, traveling the world, learning Hebrew, and solidifying my desire to enter the rabbinate. I applied to HUC-JIR, was accepted, and moved to Israel with my first-year class in June of 1996.
How did HUC-JIR prepare you to serve your congregation in Tennessee?
My five years at HUC-JIR were tremendous. I loved my classmates. I met my husband. My professors were outstanding and remain my mentors and trusted confidants to this day. The learning was challenging and inspiring. Our practical learning in the field was invaluable. During my four years stateside as an HUC-JIR student, I served as a congregational intern at two large synagogues, a hospital chaplain, a student rabbi for a small pulpit, and a research assistant to Dr. Eugene Borowitz. The variety of these experiences launched me with enough confidence into the rabbinate to allow me to build upon and grow into the profession. This career is a work-in-progress where experience in the field is paramount, but having the credibility of learning and knowledge of tradition afforded by the years in the classroom at HUC-JIR proved critical.
How does being a marathon runner help your rabbinical work?
Running offers me an outlet, a place to process, meditation in motion, the opportunity to set goals and work for them in a way that’s purely personal. It grounds me and makes me more patient and thoughtful. The only person I have to answer to when running is myself: no by-laws, no board, no executive committee. Running also gives me immense gratitude for nature, my body, my soul, and the Divine. Training for marathons just means I have to run often, which is something I love doing.
How are you meeting tough challenges as a community leader on issues including antisemitism, abortion rights, and social justice?
I think clergy are often expected to have hard and fast answers and solutions to complex issues. Because our congregations hold varied membership, especially in the South, where political affiliation cannot be assumed, we have to be intentional about creating space for the conversation around tough issues that is welcoming and safe for a pantheon of views. This is an art. It’s not easy. I have been in this particular pulpit for 16 years, so there is a level of trust and grace extended my way by our members when we do not see eye to eye. I find that creating alliances with other members of the interfaith clergy community can be both strategic and productive when it comes to difficult social issues. As for antisemitism, that reality is hardly new and won’t be leaving us anytime soon. American Jews are caught between disdain on the left and outright marginalization and victimization on the right. We need to remain unified as a people as best we can and continue to educate our allies about the subliminal tropes and gaslighting we experience so that they can recognize and call it out on our behalf. I appreciate the opportunity to be given a voice on these issues and see it (mostly) as a privilege rather than a burden.
What is special about your congregation?
Congregation Micah has a certain magic to it. We felt it from the moment we read the job description 16 years ago. It jumped off the page. While the Nashville Jewish community is steeped in tradition, Congregation Micah is only a bit over 30 years old. There are very few generational families in our congregation. Our membership is composed of folks who have moved to Nashville from other places and look to Micah to be their Jewish home. Members are invested. They are incredibly friendly. They want to be part of a synagogue community, not because their grandparents and parents belong, but because it is important to them. At Micah, we aim to lower the bar as low as possible to walk through our doors, and then raise it as high as it will go in the quality of communal and spiritual experience once inside. When you come to Micah, you become part of a family.
Describe HUC-JIR in one word.