Rabbi Zalman David Levy, who led Morristown temple
Congregants recall passion for music, political activism
Rabbi Zalman David Levy, an innovative spiritual leader who introduced political action and musical ceremonies to his pulpit at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, died Dec. 31 — four days before his 87th birthday.
“I am grateful for his having shaped this congregation and allowing me to pursue my passions, which were his passions in a different way — social action, Jewish education, and Jewish music,” said Rabbi Donald Rossoff, who succeeded Levy as religious leader after Levy’s retirement in 1990.
In 1963, Levy led a group of his congregants to the March on Washington. Inspired by the Rev. Martin Luther King, he headed south to Alabama, and wound up with King in the Birmingham jail.
Hired in part for his strong singing voice, he brought sophisticated instrumentation onto the B’nai Or bima for services. In later years, he organized a choir of 30 voices and enlisted congregants to play trombone and violin. On other occasions, he held services to the beat of rock ’n’ roll.
His temple’s musical traditions even inspired a popular Jewish rock band. In 2005, Adam Gardner, a young congregant from Morristown who sings and plays guitar in the rock group Guster, formed a second band called the LeeVees, named for the rabbi. The group’s first album, Hanukkah Rocks, features light-hearted Jewish lyrics set to an indie-rock beat.
The son of an Orthodox rabbi, Levy was raised in Pittsburgh. He began his own career as a Reform cantor at Congregation Beth El in Norwalk, Conn., after graduating from the School of Sacred Music at Hebrew Union College in 1952.
Ten years later he was ordained as a rabbi at HUC. His skills meshed perfectly with the needs of a growing congregation in Morristown.
Eliot Steinberg, a retired pharmaceutical company executive who lives in Pompton Plains, served on the search committee that hired him.
“We brought Rabbi Levy in from Norwalk, and he made a very striking impression on us,” Steinberg told NJ Jewish News. “He was a wonderful charismatic fellow with a good voice.”
“We hired him to be a singing rabbi,” said Mitzi Szerlip of Morristown, another search committee member. “I must admit, some of the rabbis don’t have much of a voice. But his was really good.”
Levy’s love for music went far beyond his own voice on the bima. He even proposed what some might have considered a radical innovation for a High Holy Day service.
“For the first Yom Kippur, he wanted to have a harp and horns and other instruments,” Szerlip recalled. “He asked my husband, Leonard, who was president, ‘How will the congregation feel?’ and Leonard said, ‘Rabbi, you can do anything you want as long as you prepare the congregation.’
“Sure enough, on every chair there was a whole piece quoting the Bible about music. We had the harps and the horns for the High Holy Days all the time, and we still do.”
Sometimes the rabbi’s politics became even more controversial than his music.
Levy’s arrest in Alabama caused concern in the Szerlip family back in Morristown. Their son Donald was preparing for his bar mitzva while Levy was in custody.
“We were afraid he wouldn’t get back in time, but he did,” Mitzi Szerlip said.
As the war in Vietnam began to escalate, Levy denounced it from his pulpit. At first, his views upset many of his members.
“People didn’t even wait until after the service to criticize me,” Levy told an interviewer in 1990. “About 10 people walked out…. I knew I had opened up a powder keg.”
But once some of his young congregants started getting draft notices, attitudes began shifting. “Many parents were for the war until their own kids had to go off and fight in it,” said the rabbi. “Then, you’d be amazed at how many parents called me to get conscientious objector deferments for their sons.”
For many years, Levy was plagued with ill health. On one occasion, he was stricken on the bima during a Rosh Hashana service.
“When it was time to blow the shofar, he said, ‘God give me strength,’” Steinberg recalled. “He put the shofar to his mouth and down he went in a heap,” stricken with an aneurysm.
“You didn’t have to ask, ‘Is there a doctor in the house?’” said Szerlip. “They came from all over the sanctuary.”
“You know how a cat has nine lives? He had about 23,” said Rossoff.
After moving from Morristown to Lenox, Mass., and then to Quichee, Vt., Levy suffered a series of strokes, “but he was a real survivor,” said Rossoff.
Throughout the years, Levy and Steinberg stayed in touch, mainly by telephone. “We had more than a congregant-rabbi relationship. It was a relationship of respect and friendship,” Steinberg said.
“I spoke with him once or twice a week and always found him to be uplifting and in high spirits. He never complained.”
The two talked together for the last time “four or five days before he died,” said Steinberg. “He sounded fine.”
Levy had been discharged from the hospital and was hoping to recover from the bout of pneumonia that took his life.
Levy was buried Jan. 6 at Beth Israel Cemetery in Cedar Knolls after funeral services at Temple B’nai Or. He is survived by his wife, Alice, daughters Ruth and Debbie, and two grandsons.