New rabbi in Jersey City
Cong. Mount Sinai heads toward its centennial year under a new rabbi who says he learns with passion, plays a mean guitar, and often wonders how the strands of his life wove together under God’s direction to bring him to Jersey City.
"It has a lot of neshama, this place," said Rabbi Chaim Zalman Levy in an interview.
Mount Sinai, on Sherman Ave. in the Heights area, is Levy’s first pulpit, so "everything is like a first-time experience for me." He recently did his first wedding, went to his first shul dinner, and, sadly, officiated at his first funeral, for the man responsible for connecting him to the congregation, he said, clearly moved by the remembrance.
Levy said his top three priorities for the congregation are having it fully restored and designated as a state historical site, which was the point of its Dec. 4 annual dinner; helping the area become one "that people will want to move to," which means building infrastructure, perhaps through a Jewish community development corporation; and outreach into New York City for members, through educational programs. Mount Sinai is a part-time job for the 46-year-old still unmarried Chabad rabbi, who also works part-time as curriculum author and editor for the Jewish Learning Institute.
Mount Sinai, Orthodox since its inception in 1906, has recently had many rabbis, but Levy thinks he’s the "first rabbi in this building for the last two decades at least who is not a YU graduate."
The shul served as a community synagogue, meant for "every kind of person," which can happen only with a synagogue that observes halacha, Levy continued. The place has had "tremendous ups and downs" and will have more, but it also has "tremendous potential. I wouldn’t trade [this job] for the world."
Born in Englewood Hospital because his mother decided to wait for his birth at her parents’ Leonia home, Levy grew up in Scarsdale in a "classically all-American ’60s and ’70s suburban Jewish home," he said, adding that he attended a Reform religious school. He has two sisters, both of whom live in Leonia with their families, one in the house that belonged to their grandparents.
While at Harvard, he played guitar in a rock band, Lazy Lightning, heavily influenced by the Grateful Dead. But today, he is inspired by Chassidic niggunim. His longtime musical partner, Yudi Simon, recently got married, said Levy, so they’re on a break, but he’s been performing with the singer Yerachmiel. His own favorite music at the moment is the music he is trying to create. "Ultimately," he said, "it’s soul music."
Levy majored in U.S. and Latin America history, picking up Spanish along the way and coming to realize that, in addition to his musical interests, he "had strong spiritual leanings." The two meshed in a way that did not at first glance seem promising: He flunked his Jewish history course with renowned scholar Rabbi Isadore Twersky when, feeling he needed to "spread the light through the world," he handed in an exam in which he’d written about images of Jews in media as expressed through music, like Dylan’s or reggae, rather than about Maimonides and medieval history.
He soon apologized to Twersky. He was coming to realize that his music was only a means to something else, but, he said, he didn’t yet know what.
After college, Levy spent several years working and traveling. Then one day, during a stint teaching English as a second language in Manhattan, he picked up a pamphlet in a kosher pizza parlor and his life took a new direction. The pamphlet, from Chabad and picturing a bagel, was reaching out to "young Jews with a hole in their education," he said. It was in 1988, just before his ‘9th birthday, that he went to his first Lubavitch shiur and had his first taste of Shabbat and of the late Rebbe.
Propelled by "a really, really intense desire to learn," he began his studies with Chabad. After receiving smicha in 1995, he took on a variety of jobs and projects here and in Israel, before ending up first at JLI and then at Mount Sinai.
There used to be thousands of Jews in Jersey City, he said. At one point, there were 500 families at Mount Sinai alone. Now there are almost almost 400,000 people in the city, but he doesn’t know how many are Jews and guessed that there are 30 to 50 families, "if that," in his congregation, aside from a number of individual younger Jews who have been showing up.
A "typical" Saturday morning Shabbat service draws about ‘5 to 30 people, and the congregation recently added a Friday evening minyan. Although the recent dinner on Dec. 4 drew only 85 or 90 people and raised only a few thousand dollars, he said, it was a success because "the spirit of the thing was fantastic" and brought people into the building who would not otherwise have come, thereby "beginning relationships." The congregation has no Hebrew school, "but I’m starting to field those kinds of inquiries," he said.
There’s a fully-stocked small kosher grocery in Union City, "not even 10 minutes away" from the shul, said Levy, and it’s only 15 minutes to the Jewish community and services of Passaic or, though in two different directions, only ‘0 minutes to Teaneck or Elizabeth. Because of demand from the congregants of the Conservative United Synagogue of Hoboken, "kind of a twin of ours, because they were built by the same architect," the local Shoprite is bringing in many kosher products.
Levy said all the Jewish institutions in the area need to work together and also find their place within the larger community. Many of those strands were represented by guests at the dinner. "We need to pull in everyone across the board in central Hudson County," said Levy.
Noting his own eclectic background, he added, "I didn’t come into it to be marginalized or categorized. I came into it as a nice Jewish boy from Scarsdale."