The summer before his senior year at Brandeis University, David Levy was asked by a rabbi what his future plans were. He answered with a laundry list.
“I was thinking of going into forensic psychology,” Levy told NJJN. “I had worked on political campaigns and I liked that a lot. I had interned at a television station with the consumer affairs reporter and thought that was exciting stuff. I also had been teaching in an elementary school and thought that might be a nice thing to do.”
The rabbi had another idea:
“He said to me, ‘Why don’t you just become a rabbi and do them all?’”
That suggestion set Levy on a life of teaching, advocating social justice, and enhancing his commitment to the Reform movement. After graduating from high school in Buffalo, N.Y., and college at Brandeis University, off he went to Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Cincinnati campus, from where he was ordained in 1988.
For nearly 30 years he has been a pulpit rabbi in several congregations, including Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills; B’nai El Congregation in St. Louis; Kol Haverim in Glastonbury, Conn.; and for the past 11 years at Temple Shalom in Succasunna.
For much of that time, his main focus has been on social action projects in areas such as fighting anti-Semitism and racism, campaigning for criminal justice reform, fostering interracial and interfaith relations, and aiding embattled immigrants and refugees.
But on June 1, he traded his spot on the bima for an executive’s desk as the American Jewish Committee’s (AJC) New Jersey regional director. Levy decided it was time to begin a new chapter — one which will enable him to maintain his level of social commitment outside synagogue life.
“It was bashert,” he said, referring to a Yiddish term that means destined.
Levy replaces John Rosen, who left the organization in February for a fund-raising post at the Zionist Organization of America.
At Temple Shalom Levy will be replaced by Rabbi Steven L. Mills and Rabbi/Cantor Inna Serebro-Litvak from Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, who in a unique arrangement will be presiding over the pulpits of both congregations as of July 1.
An ardent fan of the Boston Red Sox, Levy sat beneath a poster of Fenway Park mounted on the wall of his new office in Millburn — one of three the organization maintains in the state. The two others are in Bergen and Mercer Counties.
The “beauty” of his new post, he said, is “plugging into a large organization with a global mission and global reach.” He defined a large part of that mission as supporting Israel, battling anti-Semitism, fighting the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, and engaging in intergroup relations.
Levy feels it is imperative to raise AJC’s profile, and he is planning a renewed focus on creating partnerships with other ethnic and religious groups, including meetings with Muslims, Mormons, and Hindus.
We need to find areas of accord and be able to build on them.
“We have a shared connection to something greater than ourselves,” he explained. “This is a basic Jewish principle. If we can understand each other, then we can understand the need to make sure all people are supported, are cared for, are able to have the benefits of our American ideals of freedom and justice.
Levy acknowledged that some Jewish organizations are reluctant to engage with Muslim groups, but said such attitudes are over simplifications. “Often people paint with a broad brush, but the Muslim community is as diverse as the Jewish community,” he said. “Within broad and diverse communities, you can find partners.”
Given a history that has sometimes led to strong alliances and, at other times, to deep antagonisms, Levy considers black-Jewish dialogue as especially critical. “I have partnered in criminal justice work with people in the black church world,” he said. “Our Jewish community needs to continue dialogue with them and find places of shared concern.”
Given the highly partisan climate in the United States, Levy was asked whether the tax-exempt status of AJC would make it difficult to speak out against government officials who speak or act in opposition to AJC’s principles.
“We focus on policy over politics in a broad centrist place and I think that in an increasingly partisan world, having an organization that brings people back to the center brings about change,” he said. “We don’t bring about change from the fringes.”
One of his key objectives, Levy said, is to affect people’s lives. “I may never know whose lives are touched by AJC, but I surely know there will be lives touched for the better. To me that is the ultimate Jewish mission.”
In an April 2013 interview with NJJN, Levy said his least favorite part of being a pulpit rabbi was “organizational administration,” which he said was not a skill taught in rabbinical school. Given his ambivalence from four years ago, NJJN asked Levy how he will cope with his new administrative role. “What I find most exciting is that at AJC I am not doing it alone,” he answered. “I am doing it as part of a team.”
That team includes the staffs of AJC’s 22 American offices, plus the 11 it maintains overseas. The organization, which is sometimes referred to as the “Jewish State Department,” has relationships with Jewish communities, diplomats, and NGOs in many countries.
AJC’s New Jersey leaders warmly welcomed Levy’s appointment.
“We’re fortunate to have found David, who both knows the New Jersey Jewish community well and has deep experience with interfaith, legislative, and community outreach,” said Lori Feldstein, president of AJC’s Central NJ Region.
Genesia Perlmutter Kamen, president of the Metro Region, called Levy a “very capable mensch.”
“I wanted someone who will be a team player with other Jewish organizations, and we need much better outreach. We need people to understand the work that we do,” she said.
Levy resides in Randolph with his wife, Julie, and two children. He said he is looking forward in his new role to visiting “a number of my amazing colleagues at a number of congregations in New Jersey,” and for the first time being able to sit next to his wife during services.
Levy said he has already “been proud to march with fellow rabbis in the fight for racial justice, in the fight for marriage equality, and in working on criminal justice reform and refugee and immigrant rights. They are really committed to social justice — not just talking about it from the bima, but taking it outside the walls of the congregation.”
Under his leadership, Levy said he hopes AJC will go beyond “targeting Jewish needs” to recognizing that “our American ideals of freedom and justice that have been so core to the strength of the Jewish community are values we want to support elsewhere.”
“’The day is short and the work is long but you must engage in it and you cannot cease from it,’” said Levy, quoting Rabbi Tarfon, a Talmudic scholar. “Our Jewish mission is to make the world a better place for ourselves and all people. It is hard work and we don’t engage in that hard work with any assurance that we will see the fruits of it, but we engage in it with the assurance that the fruits will surely come.”