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Temple Israel Memphis

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  • Simon Tuska (1835 - 1870)
    Simon emigrated to US in 1849, educated in Rochester NY, later Breslau, became rabbi in Memphis, TN 1860-71. )

Temple Israel is a Reform Jewish congregation in Memphis, Tennessee, in the United States. It is the only Reform synagogue in Memphis, the oldest and largest Jewish congregation in Tennessee, and one of the largest Reform congregations in the U.S. It was founded in 1853 by mostly German Jews as Congregation B'nai Israel (Hebrew for "Children of Israel"). Led initially by cantors, in 1858 it hired its first rabbi, Jacob Peres, and leased its first building, which it renovated and eventually purchased.

Peres was fired in 1860 because he opened a store that conducted business on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath. He was replaced by Simon Tuska, who moved the congregation from Orthodox to Reform practices. Tuska died in 1871, and was succeeded by Max Samfield; under his leadership, the synagogue was one of the founding members of the Union for Reform Judaism. In 1884, Children of Israel completed a new building, and membership grew rapidly. Samfield died in 1915, and was succeeded by Bill Fineshriber, an outspoken supporter of women's suffrage and equal rights for African Americans. The following year the congregation moved to a new building, where membership continued to grow. Fineshriber left in 1924, and was succeeded by Harry Ettelson.

The synagogue experienced difficulty during the Great Depression—membership dropped, the congregational school was closed, and staff had their salaries reduced—but conditions had improved by the late 1930s. In 1943 the synagogue changed its name to Temple Israel, and by the late 1940s membership had almost doubled from its low point in the 1930s. Ettelson retired in 1954, and was succeeded by Jimmy Wax.

Wax became known for his activism during the Civil Rights Movement. Though some members—particularly those whose families had lived in the South for generations—had segregationist views, others were prominent in the fight for black civil rights. During Wax's tenure, most of Temple Israel's members moved far from the existing synagogue, and in 1976 the congregation constructed its current building, closer to where most members lived. Wax retired in 1978, and was succeeded by Harry Danziger, who brought traditional practices back to the congregation. He retired in 2000, and was succeeded by Micah Greenstein. As of 2010, Temple Israel has almost 1,600 member families. Greenstein is the senior rabbi, and the cantorial soloist is Abbie Strauss.