‘This job is really about everyone else’
Questions for...Rabbi David Levy
Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News
Rabbi David Levy, who took the helm of Temple Shalom in Succasunna in 2006, will receive an honorary doctorate from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute for Religion in recognition of 25 years in the rabbinate. The Reform congregation will fete him in their own way with a gala dinner on Saturday evening, April 27. Both HUC and the Jewish Theological Seminary regularly present honorary doctorates to their alumni at the 25-year milestone following ordination or investiture.
NJJN has asked Levy some traditional as well as some unorthodox questions at this special occasion.
NJJN: What was your weirdest rabbinic moment?
Levy: I went to see my parents in Florida a couple of weeks ago. I was out running in the early morning and a car went by. Then I watched as it does a U-turn and comes back. I was thinking they were going to ask for directions. Then it slows down, stops, and a window rolls down. A kid says, “See, mom? I told you not to run over the rabbi!” They were a family from Temple Shalom also visiting family in Florida.
NJJN: What do you do when you aren’t being a rabbi?
Levy: Road biking. My favorite place to bike is up at [URJ Camp Eisner] in Great Barrington. I found a great route that goes from Great Barrington to West Stockbridge and loops back. It’s gorgeous. There are beautiful old homes, farms, small towns. Everything you think of when you think of the Berkshires.
NJJN: We hear you’re a Red Sox fan. Got any good stories?
Levy: The first time I came to New Jersey in 1988 I was working under Rabbi Barry Greene at Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills. A congregant gave us tickets to the opening game — it was Yankees vs. Red Sox. The Red Sox are an obsession for me. Barry was a rabid Yankees fan, grew up near Yankee Stadium. We were sitting in the third row by the first baseline — amazing seats. I was decked out in Red Sox gear. He was decked out in Yankees gear. I’m cheering my head off at our seats. The guy behind us was getting more and more angry. Finally, he puts his hand on Barry’s shoulder and says, “Buddy — what are you doing bringing this guy to the stadium?” Barry puts on his most pastoral smile, turns to the guy, and says, “They’re his tickets.” The guy sits down and you can see he’s wondering how am I going to get through the season with this guy sitting in front of me.
NJJN: What would you be if you weren’t a rabbi?
Levy: Right before my interview for rabbinical school I was licensed as a teacher. I was also interested in psychology. Probably something engaging people, teaching, supporting them, caring for them.
NJJN: What’s the (publishable) part of your job you feel you didn’t sign up for?
Levy: Organizational administration. We get no training for that in rabbinical school and if you do this job well, you have to learn to do organizational administration well. The best thing I ever did was train as a naval chaplain because we were trained in financial organization and administrative stuff.
NJJN: What’s your favorite part of the job?
Levy: Seeing other people inspired to do or be something great and knowing I’ve had a small part in their lives. This job is really about everyone else.
NJJN: What do you love about New Jersey?
Levy: Watching my kids grow up here. It feels like home. I love the very beautiful semi-rural feeling most of New Jersey has that you can’t see from the bridges. Everything from the shore to the Delaware Water Gap.
NJJN: What do you hate about New Jersey?
Levy: Traffic and the frenetic way we live. Although I also get energy from the freneticism!
NJJN: Your proudest rabbinic moment?
Levy: Leibel Fein [Moment magazine and MAZON founder Leonard Fein] cornered me (I didn’t realize he actually knew who I was!) and asked me to start his National Jewish Coalition for Literacy project in Hartford, Conn., where I was a pulpit rabbi at the time. The day we announced ourselves, we were just almost instantaneously overwhelmed by people who wanted to tutor kids in kindergarten through third grades in at-risk schools. It was transformative and we really made a difference.
NJJN: On a much more serious note, we’re speaking as Boston is in lockdown. Any thoughts on that scene?
Levy: It’s hard not to think about it. My mom is from Lynn [Mass.] and I went to Brandeis undergraduate so even though I’m originally from Buffalo, I have lots of friends and colleagues there. We have lots of members with kids in college in the Boston area. And my daughter just got into Brandeis. So it hits really close to home, and it clearly will be on people’s minds tonight. We’re going to do some special prayers tonight for Boston. It happens to be a Shabbat with the choir tonight, and they happen to be singing songs of peace, so that’s very appropriate.… I’m also going to send an e-mail to people in the area with kids in the Boston area who might want to talk, letting them know they can get in touch with me, and that I can put them in touch with colleagues in Boston.