Rabbi Benjamin Levy knew at age 11 that he wanted to be a rabbi, but it took some decades and a career change or two before he found his way to the pulpit.
Levy taught emotionally disturbed students at Livingston High School on the Upper West Side in Manhattan for five years. He also worked as a disc jockey at the “oldies night” of an Upper East Side club, where he met his wife, Evelyn. However, he never forgot his old dream.
This year he is celebrating his 18th year as rabbi at Congregation Etz Chaim-Monroe Township Jewish Center, fulfilling his dream with a congregation that shares his vision.
“I was very attracted to this congregation initially because it had been my dream to be rabbi of a small, friendly, closely knit synagogue and this has always been a tightly knit, friendly place that has a lot of volunteers,” said Levy. “It has been my pleasure to share Jewish life with a congregation that really wants to explore Jewish life and immerse itself in what it means to share holy time and community.”
On May 3, the congregation will honor their rabbi on his chai anniversary with a dinner-dance.
Under his leadership, the Reform synagogue has maintained a steady membership of about 140 families, completed an expansion about 15 years ago that doubled its size, and has made improvements to its bima and sanctuary, including the addition of stained-glass windows.
The former Monroe Township Jewish Center added the Etz Chaim, or “Tree of Life,” to its name because of the rabbi’s belief that shuls should have a Hebrew name.
The merger of its religious school with that of Conservative Congregation Beth Ohr in Old Bridge is in its second year, and the two congregations are sharing holiday services and celebrations.
Stephanie Belzer, a past Etz Chaim president, current fund-raising vice president, and chair of the anniversary event, has known Levy since he came to the synagogue.
“I can honestly say I remain a member here because of him,” said Belzer. “He keeps members of all ages engaged. He’s very good with children and they love him. He does a lot to engage young adults in their 20s and 30s.
“He reaches out to other temples, denominations, and those of other religions and brings about an understanding of who we are to them,” said Belzer. “He does adult and holiday preparation classes and has brought high school and college students to nursing homes.”
Levy, who grew up in Queens and Spring Valley, NY, said his family was not religious. Nevertheless, he said, he always felt a connection to Judaism and knew early on he would become a rabbi. He “begged” his parents to send him to yeshiva.
“They couldn’t understand where that came from,” said Levy.
He parents relented, and he attended the Hebrew Institute of Rockland County, then in Monsey, NY, and the Orthodox Mesivta Chofetz Chaim Yeshiva in Queens.
Levy temporarily abandoned his rabbinical dream, earning a bachelor’s degree in drama from New York University and a master’s in secondary special education from Hunter College of the City University of New York. He became a teacher but finally decided to earn his rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he would earn another master’s in Hebrew letters. He is currently working on a doctorate in midrash and scriptural interpretation at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary.
His multi-denominational background, he said, “has opened up a lot of pathways for me in terms of understanding spirituality and Torah.”
Levy taught religious school at synagogues in New York City and served a rabbinical internship at the Community Temple Beth Ohr in Brooklyn before taking a position at Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester County in Chappaqua, NY.
He and Evelyn have two sons, Eli, 26, and Reuven, 23.
Larry Richek, an Etz Chaim member for more than 25 years who was on the rabbinic search committee that hired Levy, recalled how his resume stood out. Their first face-to-face interaction was even more impressive.
“There was something about his personality from the first time we met him — he was like a family member more than a rabbi,” said Richek. “Everyone was very comfortable around him and you could tell he had leadership skills.”
After the finalists were invited to conduct a Shabbat service, the committee got more positive feedback about Levy. “He struck me as being a traditional rabbi,” said Richek. “He has always been respectful of the practices of the congregants.”
Richek’s son was the rabbi’s first bar mitzva at the synagogue, and Levy officiated at the baby-namings of Richek’s four granddaughters.
Belzer said Levy has a good relationship with senior members from Monroe’s adult communities.
“My mother is in her 80s, lives three hours away, and has her own synagogue, but she prefers to spend holidays here because of Rabbi Levy,” said Belzer.
“Many people join a shul and then tend to leave after their children become bar and bat mitzva, but that is not the case with us because we have so many activities and relationships with people that they become attached to us,” said Levy.
“If we could attract more people that would be great, but if we only deepen our commitment to mitzvot and Torah learning, I will have fulfilled my mission. I see us as becoming a beacon of light for liberal Judaism in Middlesex County, spreading God’s light and kindness.”