Rabbi Naomi Levy to speak in Closter about finding light in dark times
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Rabbi Naomi Levy to speak in Closter about finding light in dark times

Chanukah provides a perfect metaphor for Jewish teachings, says Rabbi Naomi Levy, former pulpit rabbi and founder of the Jewish outreach group Nashuva.

Levy – who will be scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-el in Closter this weekend -told The Jewish Standard that “our tradition chose to put a festival of light right when the world is darkest. It’s not exactly an accident.”

“Judaism is telling us that when the world seems bleak, dark, and cold, we should light a candle” rather than giving in to despair or hiding under the covers, she said. “The light of one little candle can illuminate a great space, and when it bestows light, the original flame is not diminished.”

The same is true of loving and caring, added Levy, who said she learned a great deal from her daughter Noa, now 14, who was diagnosed with the fatal degenerative disease ataxia-telangiectasia at age 5. She credits Noa with giving her the title of her new book, “Hope Will Find You: My Search for the Wisdom to Stop Waiting and Start Living” (Doubleday Religion, 2010).

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Rabbi Naomi Levy Courtesy Rabbi Levy

“Noa saw hope not as an idea, but really understood it as something like a living force,” she said of her daughter, whose ataxia, lack of balance, ultimately proved to be static, rather than degenerative.

“What she was saying was that it’s one thing to search for hope, but there’s another option, something deeper: to open up and let hope find us. What I’ve learned over the past seven years is that the resources of hope and blessing are all around us, at every turn, every day.”

Levy said that while we might not necessarily get what we hope for, there are nevertheless “sources and openings of hope and blessing and strength that are here.” For example, she explained, we should never assume that we have to go it alone.

“It’s one of the most important principles of Judaism,” she said. “We’re a communal people.” Some prayers, like the Mourners Kaddish, cannot be said alone. This is psychologically helpful, she said, since it allows the community to provide comfort to the bereaved.

Levy said she was blindsided by her daughter’s initial diagnosis.

“I had this paralysis; I didn’t know what to say to God. The irony was that I had just written a book called ‘Talking to God.’ But I didn’t know what to pray.”

Ultimately, however, she gained strength from Noa herself.

“One morning Noa woke up with a terrible bout of ataxia and couldn’t keep her balance. She was in second grade. There was no way she could eat breakfast; I had to hold her up.” After telling her daughter that she couldn’t go to school that day, she followed Noa to her room, where she saw the girl hold on to the wall and recite her traditional morning prayers.

“I watched,” she said. “All I can tell you is that it seemed like somebody was lifting her up and strengthening her – just a solid ‘pull’ that had suddenly entered her and made her erect and solid. When she was done, she walked toward me with stability and grace and said, ‘Mom, I’m ready for school now.'”

What she learned, said Levy, was that we all have the power to pray for strength and to receive it.

The mother learned something else as well when, for her 12th birthday, Noa said she wanted to have a rock-climbing party.

“I tried to talk her out of it,” Levy said, “but she insisted. She put on the harness, made her way up a 24-foot wall, and then came down.”

Levy then saw a boy Noa’s age who was crying and too frightened to climb.

“I realized that in life, the greatest disability is fear and the greatest strength is courage,” she said. “Often, [things] keep us from experiencing our world that have nothing to do with our limbs and muscles but with internal obstacles.”

In her talk at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, Levy will discuss the ways fear affects us and how we often spend our days “waiting for our lives to begin.”

She uses the analogy of a real waiting room to make her point. During her daughter’s treatments, she has spent countless hours in these facilities.

“Things started to shift when I began embracing the waiting room,” she said. “I stopped saying ‘I hate this place’ and realized that this is a sacred place, too. It’s a place of community, where mothers of sick children come together.” And, unlike situations where children stand out because of their disabilities, “everyone was normal and beautiful there.”

Citing the verse from Jeremiah, “The people who survived the sword found grace in the wilderness,” Levy said she has seen that “when you’re in the wilderness, it’s hard to see how far you’ve come, and yet you have come a long distance from that initial place and already so much has been gained and learned.”

Among the first women to enter the Jewish Theological Seminary, Levy was the first female Conservative rabbi to head a congregation on the West coast, serving as religious leader of Mishkon Tephilo in Venice, Ca., for seven years. Appearing on the list in Newsweek of the 50 top rabbis in America, the author – whose husband is Ron Eshman, editor of the Jewish Journal of Greater Los Angeles – founded Nashuva in 2004. According to the rabbi, the group has reached out to tens of thousands of Jews, “bringing them back” to the community.

Rabbi Naomi Levy will be scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-El in Closter, Nov. 19-21. At Friday night and Saturday services, she will speak about her books “To Begin Again” and “Talking to God.” On Sunday she will lead a study session and healing program geared to survivors of cancer. For more information, call the synagogue, (201) 750-9997.

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