Nicki Greninger almost had a career as a New England Patriots cheerleader instead of a rabbi. When she graduated from Dartmouth College, she tried out for the squad, but she didn’t make it. Since she was a Denver Broncos fan at heart and had applications out for rabbinical school, it all worked out fine in the end.
NFL cheerleader or not, Rabbi Greninger has a lifelong passion for dance and physical movement. Her dance team in high school won a national championship and she was in both swing and tap performance groups in college.
“Dancing is very relational,” she said in an interview in her office at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, California, where she is Director of Education. “There is a beautiful give and take between dancers. It is very bonding and builds a sense of community. I’d like to see more dance as part of Jewish communal life.”
For Rabbi Greninger, this isn’t just an item on a wish list. She met with acclaimed American choreographer Liz Lerman on the Temple Isaiah campus to explore ways to integrate dance into the congregational and educational life of the synagogue. In addition, she took a class at Hebrew Union College on the intersection of dance and Judaism, and she worked with another rabbi on a study guide to explore dance in Jewish text and tradition, in an effort to make it part of a wider conversation.
Rabbi Greninger is all about jumping onto higher plateaus. At Temple Isaiah, a Reform synagogue with 900 families in the suburbs east of San Francisco, she reimagines and re-envisions, unafraid to fail, with the goal of transformative effect.
In 2012, Rabbi Greninger received The Covenant Foundation’s Pomegranate Prize, which recognized her promise as a young Jewish educator for leadership and impact in the field.
Her exploration of dance and Jewish life, she said, is a major result of the resources, network, and latitude afforded by being a member of the Prize’s second cohort. The Prize also more broadly fueled and empowered her already expansive mindset.
As Director of Education at Temple Isaiah for the last eight years, Rabbi Greninger has led the congregation to embrace new dynamics, discarding and upending some more traditional patterns and modes of thinking.
“More than anything, the Pomegranate Prize gave me the confidence to believe that what I was doing was of value,” she said. “It has given me the license to continue pushing the envelope and innovate, and to consider a way of thinking that is to be honored and celebrated.
“My community is very open and there is not a ton of resistance to begin with, but the Prize certainly gave me a unique validity.”
For example, Rabbi Greninger has led a wholesale rethinking of the way pre-K to seventh-grade students receive Jewish education, starting with doing away with the term “religious school” and replacing it with the more forward-thinking name “JQuest.”
“I’ve helped to get people to think differently about what formal Jewish education is,” she said. “To say we run a religious school here is not accurate. It’s not entirely religious, and it is not entirely school. It’s a very misleading name and can draw negative reactions from some.
“Religious schools have traditionally been based on public school models of the 19th and 20th centuries. There have been standardized curriculums for age and grade; it’s frontal teaching with desks, chalkboards, and workbooks.
“There is a schema here that is not essential. What is absolutely essential is educating the next generation of Jews as to what it means to be Jewish. My mission is to help children be part of the Jewish community. We have to do that in ways that work.”
The result at Temple Isaiah is a new model that has attracted national attention. Central to the new approach are tracks that offer various portals into Jewish learning – art, nature, technology, and storytelling, for example – and breaking down walls, cutting across grade levels, intermingling students of different ages, and involving parents and community along the way.
Ultimately, Rabbi Greninger said, the goal is to strengthen Jewish identity, connection, knowledge, enthusiasm, and commitment in meaningful and sustainable ways.
“I am very interested in Jewish education not being one size fits all,” she said. “It is usually that. I came in with the thought of creating different paths for different people. But that idea would have been impossible to implement without the buy in and energy of staff, parents, and our lay leadership.”
Dan Myers, a member of Temple Isaiah’s Board of Directors, said the synagogue community, by virtue of being in the Bay Area, is particularly open to creative experimentation and innovation and that Rabbi Greninger is a “change agent” and leader in that regard.
“The congregation gets excited about taking chances,” he said. “We are willing to experiment and even come to expect change. If version 2.0 exists, then we believe in getting to version 3.0. Her mindset, vision, and leadership are an integral part of that journey.
“The broader objective is to make sure our children and families have a positive and participatory Jewish identity and experience, and that is being generated here.”
Temple Isaiah’s JQuest has become a national model for congregational education. Rabbi Greninger has written about it in national communal publications, presented at Jewish educational conferences, and hosted visiting educators who want to see the program in action on the synagogue’s sprawling campus.
She has also engineered the redesign of the congregational school’s Hebrew language program. The new approach integrates Hebrew learning throughout the school’s DNA, across JQuest tracks, and in keeping with the latest understandings of how children most effectively learn, retain, and use the language.
Rabbi Greninger has been at Temple Isaiah since being ordained and earning a Master’s degree in Religious Education from Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion.
At first, she said, running a religious school as the entirety of her job was not her end goal. But as it became increasingly clear that the synagogue could be a laboratory for her to be creative and put her own stamp on Jewish education there, she jumped at the opportunity.
“I had lots of ideas and wanted to work on them and develop them here,” she said. “The environment here encourages me to do so, and the Pomegranate Prize has enabled me to dream even bigger. Throughout, I envision our desired outcome – a strong Jewish community - and what kind of Jewish education can get us there.”