Am Echad’s new rabbi brings numbers up at small shul

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Menachem Levine decided he wanted to become a rabbi … in law school.

It’s not usually a place spiritual leaders find their spiritual center, but that’s where it happened for Levine, mostly through his work creating a Jewish heritage club focused on education and Torah instead of only socializing.

“I found myself enjoying that more than law school, and that clarified everything for me,” he said.

Levine, 31, arrived at San Jose’s Congregation Am Echad at the end of the summer. The Orthodox synagogue had been without a rabbi since 2004, and already its membership has begun to grow for the first time in years.

Jonathan Kaye, past president and board member, said Levine has been a good fit for Am Echad, which consists of about 40 families, nearly all of whom were not raised Orthodox, and who represent a variety of nationalities, including French, Scottish, Persian, Israeli, Russian and South African.

“We needed a leader who was authentic but modern, who was intellectually engaging while at the same time being socially relevant,” Kaye said.

“Rabbi Levine has the charisma, energy and credibility to be a leader who pulls Orthodox affiliates together.”

Levine grew up in an Orthodox family in Miami Beach, Fla. He studied at Yeshiva University in New York, and also at yeshivas in Jerusalem and New Jersey, and then attended law school at the University of Pennsylvania. “I think yeshiva gave me an edge in law school,” Levine said.

He finished in the spring, and even though law school convinced him the rabbinate was the right path, he took the California Bar Exam this summer (his test results will be coming in a few weeks).

He and his wife, Rachelli, have three daughters. The parents are both teaching classes at Am Echad, and the rabbi is also teaching through the Palo Alto-based Jewish Study Network.

Levine has “revitalized and reenergized” Am Echad, Kaye said.

Levine restored the twice-daily minyan, and attendance is increasing. He has begun to offer classes every day except Shabbat. He’s working on building an eruv in San Jose, and has started talking with San Jose Hebrew Day School about building an all-girls Orthodox high school.

Jewish life in the Bay Area is quite different (read: more unaffiliated and more spread out) than any other Jewish community Levine has lived in (the gas stations were closed on Shabbat in Lakewood, N.J.), but the choice to go West was intentional, he said.

“It’s much more important that Jews look for community here because it’s not all around you — you have to search it out,” Levine said. “So I’m able to really help people in an area where they otherwise wouldn’t have a Jewish community. And the weather is great.”

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Stacey Palevsky

Stacey Palevsky is a former J. staff writer.