Malibu’s HaLevy a leader of rabbis, a face of change

When Rabbi Judith HaLevy came to Los Angeles in 1992 to help start Mesivta, a Center for Jewish Spirituality, she committed to stay for just a year. Nineteen years later, she is deeply rooted in the L.A. community with the thriving Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue and a new post as the 36th president of the Board of Rabbis of Southern California.

HaLevy, installed on May 17 during a ceremony at her synagogue, is only the second woman to lead the 330-member organization — the first being HaLevy’s immediate predecessor, Rabbi Denise Eger of Congregation Kol Ami.

“I was given incredible gifts to become the rabbi I am at a time when women didn’t really become rabbis,” said HaLevy, 68, who began her rabbinic education in the early 1980s. “A very well-known Conservative rabbi, who I won’t name, urged me to take a position on the Board of Rabbis 15 years ago. He said that I owed it to the women of L.A. I was resistant, but over the years his admonition has been in my consciousness.”

She said that while change for women has come rapidly since the 1960s, the movement of women from the margins to the center of Jewish life took 2,000 years.

“I feel responsible to stand up and take a role that is perhaps out of my comfort zone to validate the women that made all these changes happen over the last 50 years,” she said, adding that in order to be treated as co-partners with men, women need to be willing to take on difficult roles.

HaLevy, who has served with the Board of Rabbis’ executive committee since 2002, said that her top priority during her two-year tenure as president is to be responsive to the diversity of the Los Angeles Jewish community and continue on the path of creating opportunities for civil discourse around difficult issues.

“It’s time to start listening to each other or people will disengage around crises, including dangers posed to the State of Israel and dissensions within Judaism itself,” she said.

The organization’s 330 rabbis, who come from all walks of Jewish life, need to be able to sit down together and discuss these issues so that they can go back and promote civil discourse within their communities, she says.

She also wants to strengthen the relationship between the Board of Rabbis and The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles, saying that the two “make up the arms and legs” of the Jewish community.

“There’s a spirit of cooperation and shared goals that needs to be both expanded and affirmed,” HaLevy said, explaining that the rabbis are the important connectors back to the Jewish community, the key to engaging people in Jewish life and transforming them on a daily basis.

Jewish Federation President Jay Sanderson says that that HaLevy’s passion, dynamism and enthusiasm make her the perfect catalyst to bring The Federation and the Board of Rabbis into a closer working relationship.

“We look forward to Rabbi Judith HaLevy’s inspired leadership as the Board of Rabbis continues to connect our community’s rabbis and synagogues closer to our work in caring for Jews in need, engaging in our broader community and, most importantly, ensuring our Jewish future for our children and grandchildren,” he said.

Rabbi Judith, as she is known to her friends and congregants at Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue, comes from an international education and performing arts background. Before moving to Los Angeles, she lived in New Mexico, where she discovered her calling to become a rabbi and first led services for a small Jewish community.

Her passion and enthusiasm have helped her Malibu Reconstructionist congregation grow and flourish — a reflection both of the needs of the community and the creativity that it has incorporated into its shul, she said. She explains that her board was always supportive, even when her ideas seemed crazy.

“Our first Shabbat on the Beach was five chairs in a circle and a bunch of dolphins showing up,” she said, adding that the service has since become a popular event among the congregants while continuing to be popular with the dolphins.

She also explains that despite stereotypes, study is a key component of the Malibu congregation, which features 250 families.

“Jews are far more hungry for meaningful Jewish study than one would think. In a place like Malibu, where you would think it would be far more about social events and less philosophically engaged, it turns out the underpinnings of the congregation is that almost everyone participates in some sort of study program,” HaLevy said. 

And she credits their success to her close bond with Cantor Marcelo Gindlin, explaining that “his song reflects my soul,” and their openness to Jews of all kinds, including mixed marriages. “We are very embracing, bringing Jews who might otherwise have slipped away into a place that they feel comfortable without compromising the Judaism that is offered.”

Her creative background, she said, is something unique that she brings to her position.

“I came to the center from the margins,” she explained, referring both to her roots in theater and being a woman in rabbinical school at a time when that was rare. “I understand the creativity that exists at the margins of Jewish life and have been able to incorporate that creativity in my own rabbinate.”

She said that she personally resonates with the experiences of spirituality and creativity and seeks to bring that to others. “If a spiritual experience hasn’t happened in the room, then I didn’t do my job.”

Rabbi Mark S. Diamond, executive vice president of the Board of Rabbis, has worked closely with HaLevy for the last decade and said she is a rabbi and a woman of enormous soul.

“She has a beautiful neshamah [soul] and has a deep appreciation for the mystical and spiritual side of Jewish life. Those are precious gifts that she brings to the Board of Rabbis,” he said.