Rabbi in love with Judaism brings womans eye to Tiburon

Ask the new rabbi at Congregation Kol Shofar about her nickname, and the answer is much more complicated than it appears.

Karen Levy goes by "Chai," but she did not choose the moniker simply because it means life. While taking a Yiddish class several years ago, Levy went by her Hebrew name, Chaya Yehudith, which comes from her grandmother and great-grandmother. But with the Ashkenazi pronunciation used in her class, she thought it made her sound like a Chassidic woman from Boro Park.

So she shortened it to its acronym, the letters chet and yud.

"I like the name because it reminds me of the gift of being alive and living fully," she said. "It means to give thanks to God for life and for being a Jew."

Levy, 30, who was ordained in May at the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, is the new assistant rabbi at the Conservative synagogue in Tiburon.

Raised in Richmond, Va., Levy grew up in a non-practicing Conservative family. "I was, on my own, really interested and in love with Judaism," she said. "I was born with a Yiddishe neshama. It wasn't something nurtured in my family, but it wanted to come out in Virginia."

(Coincidentally, Levy is the second Virginia-bred, Conservative thirtysomething woman rabbi to serve a Bay Area congregation in recent years. Levy claims she and her colleague, Rabbi Dorothy Richman at San Francisco's Congregation Beth Sholom, have been leading parallel lives for many years).

While she did celebrate a bat mitzvah, it wasn't exactly the most meaningful of experiences. Levy remembers the rabbi pulling a prewritten d'var Torah out of a file and giving it to her to read.

Nonetheless, that Yiddishe neshama was responsible for her decision to go to Jewish camp, join the B'nai B'rith Youth Organization and go to Israel, which nobody in her family had done.

Her summer in Israel as a teenager "exposed me to Shabbat and prayer and learning Torah and I just wanted more."

Levy majored in religious studies at the University of Virginia, saying that at a school with no Jewish studies program, "it was the closest I could get." It was during her junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem that she began to think about becoming a rabbi.

While in Israel, she was in a Rosh Chodesh group with some women rabbinical students from Hebrew Union College. "They made me realize that I could be a rabbi," she said. "They were a few years older than me, and I looked to them as role models."

Also while in Israel, Levy studied for a time at an Orthodox women's yeshiva. While she continued to feel drawn to Judaism, she felt constricted by Orthodoxy.

"A big part of what made me want to become a rabbi is my love for the tradition and my feeling that women's voices and women's experiences are missing."

Acknowledging that she is fortunate to live in a time when women rabbis are the norm, she said "women are partaking in the process of the evolution of Torah, and I wanted to be part of that process."

Levy said while she will often give a d'var Torah without specifically mentioning anything that can be considered "women's issues," the very fact that she is a woman influences how she interprets Torah. "Through the lens of gender is one of the main ways at which I look at the tradition."

Last year, Levy served as a chaplain at the Family Assistance Center in New York, working with the families of victims and others seeking help after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

"Everyone felt like they wanted to do something, and giving pastoral care was the one thing I had to offer," she said.

She also has experience working with those of all ages. She has taught campers about Judaism and the environment, instructed adults about prayer and has led High Holy Days services for college students.

Levy first came to the Bay Area in 1999, doing her summer internship as a chaplain at UCSF/Mount Zion Hospital. She immediately felt at home and returned the following two summers as a rabbinic intern at Berkeley's Congregation Netivot Shalom.

Not only did she make a lot of friends in the Bay Area, but she fell in love with its natural beauty.

And in terms of the Bay Area's Jewish community, she feels that Jews here are open-minded as well as spiritual seekers.

"There's just a real openness that I feel in the Bay Area in the Jewish community. Also, I feel there's some holiness here, there was a constrictedness in New York that opens up here."

Calling her new synagogue both "eclectic and diverse," she said, "I am very interested in finding a balance between tradition and creativity, and Kol Shofar in particular seems like a good place to do that."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."