Anna Boswell-Levy’s father was her clerical role model. When she was 10, he left biophysics to pursue music and then the cantorate.
After growing up in a small “heimish” (homey) synagogue in Bryan-College Station, Texas, that welcomed her non-Jewish mother (who eventually decided to convert), Boswell-Levy found herself in Jerusalem for her father’s first year in cantorial school at the Hebrew Union College Israel campus.
There Boswell-Levy was influenced strongly by the spirituality she sensed at the Israeli Reform congregation Kol Haneshama. “It felt to me that when people would sing, their voices and prayers would split open the ceiling,” she said.
Boswell-Levy hopes to bring that heimishness and spirituality to Yardley, Pa., as the new rabbi of Kol Emet, the 180-family Reconstructionist congregation. This summer, she succeeded Rabbi Howard Cove, who was at the synagogue 18 years.
“I feel that my job as a rabbi is to know everybody in the congregation and what brings them into the congregation and help them find a place to shine within the congregation, and for decisions and processes to be really owned by the congregation,” she said.
Boswell-Levy is proud that her parents, one a Jew by choice, the other a second-career cantor, both “chose Judaism,” as she puts it in her official bio. She shared that journey when the family returned to New York to continue her father’s education.
Active in the citywide Reform youth group in New York, she admired the young rabbinic leaders and first thought about becoming a rabbi herself.
Majoring in religion and education at Smith College, she was active in the campus Hillel, serving as “religious director” her first two years — leading services in the rabbi’s absence — and as copresident during her junior year. That was where she experimented with leading services that were more interactive, where the congregation was doing the singing, not the cantor.
After graduation, Boswell-Levy interned at the Jewish spiritual retreat center Elat Chayyim, where she learned about both Reconstructionist Judaism and Jewish Renewal, and she decided to attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Pennsylvania, graduating in 2006.
She served as student rabbi at Congregation Bet Tikva in Flemington and Tiferet Bet Israel in Blue Bell, Pa., and served part-time for six years at Tzedek V’Shalom in Newtown, Pa. Kol Emet offered a full-time pulpit, as well as a nursery school downstairs for her two-year-old daughter Adar. Her husband, Josh Boswell-Levy, is trained as an attorney and serves as director of government relations for the Society of Hospital Medicine.
At Kol Emet, she said, she listens carefully to her new community to understand what they might want to change and what to hold onto. In the process, her own positions have shifted a bit.
Practices at Kol Emet are inclusive of interfaith families; for example, a non-Jewish partner can hold every position but president or ritual chair.
Boswell-Levy said when she met with members of the search committee, they liked that she could empathize with an interfaith family’s issues and that she enthusiastically performs interfaith weddings if the couple plans to have a Jewish home.
But she said she was initially less comfortable with the congregation’s practice of allowing a non-Jew to have an aliya, reciting the blessing before the reading of the Torah. Boswell-Levy said her attitude was: “I want someone to say a blessing appropriate to them. I wouldn’t want an atheist to do a blessing about belief in God, or a non-Jew talking about giving us the Torah.”
But then one of the non-Jewish committee members, who had brought up her children as Jews and learned the Torah blessings for her son’s bar mitzva, said, “God gave all of us the Torah.”
“It is something I still wrestle with,” said Boswell-Levy. “I feel anyone who comes up to the bima should say something they truly believe, and not do it by rote.”
At the same time, she added, she wants her congregants “to take ownership of their Judaism, to feel proud of the traditions and practices of their community, and to know why they do what they do.”