A child’s illness inspires a rabbi to begin again
Naomi Levy’s newest book traces ‘return’ from fear to hope
I’ve been a rabbi for 21 years, and one of the most common statements I hear is ‘My life will begin when I get this job’ or ‘when I can get out of this job’ or ‘when I get married’ or ‘when I get divorced,’” said Naomi Levy. “There is this sense that ‘whatever I’m doing right now isn’t really my life.’”
In a Nov. 1 phone interview, Levy told NJ Jewish News she spent years counseling people with that attitude without ever realizing that some day it would become her own.
It began nine years ago, when a doctor told her and her husband that their five-year-old daughter Noa had a rare disease called ataxia-telangiectasia.
It is a childhood illness that affects the brain and other parts of the body and causes uncoordinated movements, such as during walking. In many cases — but not Noa’s — it can be fatal.
How the family coped with Noa’s illness, and Levy’s guidance for those facing similarly life-shaking events, is the subject of her third and latest book, Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living.
It is a story she will tell Wednesday evening, Nov. 17, at Congregation Agudath Israel of West Essex in Caldwell.
“Everything stopped,” she said of the moment she and her husband, Rob Eshman, heard the diagnosis. “It was Shabbos and we had a houseful of guests. I went into the bedroom and didn’t come out. My life became a holding pattern. I stopped lecturing, I stopped teaching, I stopped counseling. My whole life became about how are we going to help Noa and how are we going to fix her? What am I going to do? My life became what I was counseling others about. My life will begin when Noa is fine.”
In the meantime, Levy and her daughter spent their lives “in a thousand waiting rooms —physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy, swimming therapy. You name it, we were there. The waiting room was a metaphor for my life.”
Levy’s own rediscovery of hope came through the close relationship she has with her daughter, who is now 14.
“Noa does have some physical disabilities, but they are minor in the scheme of things,” said Levy. “She is one of those people who is truly an inspiration. She is always teaching me how to move forward when you have obstacles and how to embrace a life that is less than perfect. She is a very powerful teacher about how to be courageous.”
Levy and her husband, who is editor-in-chief of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles, live in Venice, Calif. Until Noa’s illness, Levy was widely known as a teacher, the one-time rabbi of the Conservative Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, and author of a popular book on mourning and renewal, To Begin Again.
When Noa was eight, she helped her mother leave the “waiting room” and return to an active life with a new kind of rabbinate.
“The thing I am most passionate about is the sheer numbers of Jews I know who have walked away from Jewish religious life. I would meet them at the Kinko’s and the Starbucks. I had always thought they were atheists, but no. I was meeting people who were spiritual people who weren’t getting nourished in a Jewish center. They were going to the Zen Center or the Yoga Center,” Levy said.
With the encouragement of friends, Levy decided she would conduct a once-a-month Friday night service “that would welcome the kind of people who had walked away from Jewish life.”
‘Stepping through doors’
The result is Nashuva, a Hebrew word meaning “we will return.” Its mission from the very beginning was “to create an experience that was deeply spiritual and would bring the spiritually minded into a Jewish experience, combining everything we did with social justice and social action.”
She said Nashuva attracts people who had abandoned Judaism for a variety of experiences ranging from Zen Buddhism to Scientology. “We’re bringing them back,” she said. “They call us a liberal Chabad.”
With its live music and meditative davening, Nashuva offers an experience very different from the Judaism of her youth. Levy was raised “somewhere between Conservative and Orthodox” in Borough Park, Brooklyn, attending synagogues of both denominations and graduating from the Orthodox Yeshiva of Flatbush.
“I wanted to be rabbi from the time I was four years old…,” she said. “People thought I was cute.” It was an era when no Conservative women were being ordained.
But she persisted and enrolled in the class of 1984 at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the first co-ed class.
Although Nashuva is not affiliated with any denomination, Levy described it as “exemplary Conservative Judaism.”
“We are not a synagogue. We are outreach. We call it ‘keruv,’ drawing people near. It is a great mitzva,” she said.
“My message is one of the lessons I have learned from this seven-year journey from my daughter about living inside this imperfect life instead of waiting and standing in the sidelines,” said the rabbi. “It is a message not just for parents of children with disabilities but for all people. I think it is something that plagues all of us, that dynamic, that longing for the life that isn’t here yet.
“Life is about stepping through doors and seeing the openings that are here right now. They are everywhere.”