The mood is getting worse, says D.C. interns former rabbi

CHICAGO — Almost every day, 85-year-old Rabbi Samuel Graudenz calls Robert and Susan Levy, congregants at the Conservative synagogue in Modesto, where he served until his retirement.

The calls are "just to give them strength, so they'll keep having hope," said Graudenz, who recently moved to Rhoda Goldman Plaza in San Francisco.

The Levys need both strength and hope. Former Washington intern Chandra Ann Levy, their 24-year-old daughter, has been missing since May 1.

Graudenz was in Modesto several days ago to mark the yahrzeit of his wife, Eva, who died five years ago. While he was there, he had some contact with the Levys, who are not optimistic.

"The mood is getting worse, because there's absolutely no further development," he said Tuesday. "We don't know what happened to her."

Despite massive search efforts on the part of the D.C. police and the FBI, none of her family and friends has seen or heard from Chandra since April 30, when she visited her health club to cancel her membership. Records show that she used her computer for several hours on May 1.

She had just completed an internship at the Department of Justice's Bureau of Prisons and was due to return home to Modesto. Friends said she planned to attend her graduation ceremony at the University of Southern California, where she had earned a master's degree in public administration.

After initially denying it, in recent weeks Rep. Gary Condit (D-Modesto), who is married, has admitted to having had a sexual relationship with Chandra.

People magazine has reported that Chandra told her aunt that she and Condit had plans to move in together and eventually to marry.

The Levys are members of Modesto's Congregation Beth Shalom and attend services fairly often, possibly more often since Chandra's disappearance. Robert Levy is an oncologist and Susan Levy is a sculptor.

Chandra celebrated her bat mitzvah at the synagogue and, last year, the Levy family took a trip to Israel together.

Graudenz said he was "deeply shocked" by Chandra's disappearance. "I knew her as a fantastic student and a beautiful, conscientious girl," he said. "What has happened has put a terrible, terrible pressure on me as a rabbi."

Graudenz said that Susan Levy "has some strange views" and a Beth Shalom congregant, Doreen Goldman, has said that Chandra's mother was "a Jew with a belief in Jesus."

Graudenz said he didn't think either Robert Levy or Chandra shared those views. In fact, since Chandra's disappearance, Susan Levy "accepts everything that gives her strength."

Rabbi Paul Gordon, Beth Shalom's spiritual leader since August, declined to be interviewed, but did say he has known the Levy family for "many years" and added, "We all wish [Chandra] to be home."

He added that the synagogue is doing all it can to help. "In tzedakah, we give ourselves not only financially, but emotionally as well," he told the Jewish Bulletin in May.

It doesn't appear that Chandra attended synagogue during her months in Washington, although Rabbi Barry Freundel of Georgetown Synagogue said he believed he had seen her at some point.

"When [police] started sending around her picture, I thought, oh yes, I saw her once. I think it was at a lecture I gave, I don't remember where," he said. He said that after Chandra's disappearance, "her rabbi in California called me and asked for my help."

Congregation Beth Shalom, along with several Washington-area congregations, has been participating in the effort to find Chandra. A Beth Shalom employee said that soon after she was reported missing, the synagogue made a donation to the Carole Sund-Carrington Memorial Reward Foundation, a Modesto-based group that helps locate missing persons. Condit and Sen. Dianne Feinstein also made donations to the organization.

In media accounts, Chandra has been portrayed as a serious, sensible young woman and also, apparently, a sensitive one: Her parents noted that she became a vegetarian in her teens because she didn't want to hurt animals. Friends said that she was particularly interested in law enforcement and was considering attending law school. She was also portrayed as a cautious woman who had her wits about her at all times and was not likely to open her door to a stranger.

Graudenz, who officiated at her bat mitzvah, remembers her as "a marvelous young lady." Her family members, he said, have "a good Jewish spirit. They are not very observant Jews, but they never missed coming to synagogue on the High Holidays. They are coming more often now. They're so upset; that's why I call them practically every day, to make sure they know there is somebody out there who cares.

"I hope [Susan Levy] won't be misled into other [messianic Christian] beliefs," he added. "[Robert Levy] definitely wouldn't be, but she might be."

He said that Chandra's brother Adam, 18, is taking his sister's disappearance "very, very severely. He was supposed to go to college on the East Coast, but now he decided to go to a local college because he wants to be with the family."

According to Graudenz, Robert Levy "comes from a very distinguished medical family in Germany. In every generation, there has been a Dr. Levy." He said he knew Robert Levy's mother well and worked with her in recovering and refurbishing a 300-year-old miniature Torah from Germany that the Salvation Army had saved from the Nazis. The Torah is now housed at Beth Shalom, "with the condition that it must always be kept either at the synagogue or in the home of one of the doctors in the Levy family. It is given to the synagogue for safekeeping, not for ownership."

Discussing the Levys, he said, "I only hope they keep their faith and hope for the best, even though it doesn't look good.

"It is the view of the parents that Gary Condit knows a lot more than he has shared so far. They feel very, very angry at him. He hasn't even come to see them. He hasn't even called them, to the best of my knowledge."

The rabbi said he shares the Levys' anger at Condit. "I know him very well, but I'm sure he won't talk with me. He's keeping himself completely silent. I wish I had a way of getting to him. If he knew it was me calling, he would definitely not talk to me."

When he davens every morning, Graudenz prays for Chandra's safe return.

"I can only pray, though the signs are not good, that God will find her alive and well," he said. "It's difficult to see a positive outcome, but at least I can hope."

In the meantime, he says, he continues to ask himself what so many others are: "What could have happened to her?"