February 26, 2020

HUC-JIR Rabbi Richard Levy, 82

Rabbi Richard N. Levy, who died June 21 at the age of 82, was dedicated to making the world a better place.

Soon after his ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) in 1964, he traveled with 15 colleagues to St. Augustine, Fla., for a civil-rights demonstration. It landed them in jail, but not before they attended a church service where Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. greeted them as “Moses’ children.”

Levy was born on June 9, 1937, in  Rochester, N.Y., the son of Mauree and Miriam Levy. The family had deep roots in the city’s Jewish community. His great-grandfather Isaac Lipsky helped found the Leopold Street shul, and his great-uncle was Zionist leader Louis Lipsky. His cousin, Ben Goldstein, was executive director of Temple B’rith Kodesh in Brighton, N.Y. By the time he was a bar mitzvah, Levy knew he wanted to become a rabbi.

He received his undergraduate degree from Harvard and was ordained by HUC.  Originally posted to Temple Beth Am in suburban Yorktown Heights, N.Y., in 1965, the following year, Levy settled in Los Angeles, where he served as assistant rabbi for two years at Leo Baeck Temple, one of the progressive bastions of the Reform movement.

Levy’s social justice instincts traveled west with him. He was one of the cofounders of Bet Tzedek Jewish Legal Services in 1972 and was tireless in his efforts to find a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

He brought that dedication to his next position at UCLA, where he was director of the campus’ Hillel Council until 1975 and director of the Los Angeles Hillel Council until 1999.

That same year, Levy was named director of the School of Rabbinical Studies on the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR. During his 10 years on the job, the school graduated its first students (previously, students had to transfer to the Cincinnati or New York campuses to complete their studies). He remained there as a lecturer, as rabbi of the campus synagogue and as director of spiritual growth until he retired in 2014.

During his tenure at HUC, Levy was named president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the principal organization of Reform rabbis. In 1999, he was one of the prime movers behind its “Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism.” The document, which Levy reworked and published as “A Vision of Holiness: The Future of Reform Judaism” in 2005, advocated for the Reform movement to return to traditional Jewish rituals: wearing the kippah, praying in Hebrew and observing mitzvot such as Shabbat and kashrut. In a 2005 interview with the Journal, he explained his thinking: “Mitzvot are sacred obligations and the means by which we make our
lives holy. It’s both spiritual responding to
what God has asked us to do, and practice-oriented — doing things that are in the Torah.”

In addition to “A Vision of Holiness,” Levy was the author of  “On Wings of Awe” (1985), a High Holy Days prayer book, a Passover haggadah, “On Wings of Freedom” (1989) and “On Wings of Light” (2000). His last book was 2017’s “Songs Ascending,” a new translation and commentary on the Book of Psalms.

Levy’s influence, however, is most deeply felt in the legions of students he trained and mentored. Many of them took to social media to share their thoughts. 

Rabbi Jason Rodich of San Francisco’s Congregation Emanu-El wrote: “I am filled with gratitude … for the chance to learn from his bold, sweet and passionate example. Rabbi Levy was about love and justice, two things I try to always bring to my work and my life.”

Rabbi Eleanor Steinman of Temple Beth Hillel, called Levy, “A teacher, a rabbi, a justice seeker, a person who loved his family, our God, prayer and making it meaningful, and the Jewish people … he taught me to meet people where they
are, to show up, and always encouraged me to smile.”

Rabbi Denise Eger of West Hollywood’s Congregation Kol Ami, posted that Levy “shaped generations of young Jews who had so many questions and doubts … He raised questions, challenged the status quo, protested, comforted and always had Jewish tradition at his core.”

Levy was a devoted family man. His marriage to Carol lasted 43 years, until her death in 2015. They had two daughters, Sarah and Elizabeth, who both survive him, along with a grandson, Elijah Kalista.