Live wire rabbi strives to energize aging Ner Tamid

Lingering memories of the Vietnam War continue to haunt both the conscious and subconscious thoughts of millions of Americans. And, in this way, Rabbi Moshe Levin is truly unique. His experiences during the war were some of the most positive and important of his entire life.

"I found a country full of millions of people who have a wonderful family structure, respect for their elders, a calendar full of holidays, standards of ethics and a lovely culture, and they had never even heard of us. Virtually no one I met had ever heard of Judaism or the Ten Commandments or Torah or Shabbat or Exodus and they were getting along fine without it," said Levin, 58, the spiritual leader at San Francisco's Congregation Ner Tamid.

Levin, who has served as its rabbi since December, will be officially installed in a June 23 ceremony.

After growing up in Brooklyn's Crown Heights, literally around the corner from the Lubavitcher rebbe, Levin's first-ever trip west of the Mississippi was to serve two tours of duty as a chaplain at Korat Air Force Base in Thailand.

"I was raised with the idea that we gave the world civilization. If it wasn't for us, we'd all be eating each other, living in caves! So [Asia] moved me from a triumphalist position to one of appreciating and respecting Judaism as my people's search for God. I have respect for others I never had growing up — without losing one iota of my pride and love for being a Jew."

Levin's experiences in Southeast Asia have helped make him the rabbi he is today — a man described by friends and congregants as "innovative," "a live wire," "courageous" and even "a little bit crazy in the good sense."

During the past decade or more, the Conservative congregation has, in the words of one lay leader, "played musical rabbis." But in Levin, congregants are hopeful they've found the rabbi who can stop the music. Longtime members say they haven't felt this optimistic about the shul's future in 15, 20 or even 30 years.

"I've seen rabbis come and I've seen rabbis go. Since [founding Rabbi William] Dalin retired, there's been a chain of I-don't-know-how-many rabbis. None of them have had the spark or the excitement Rabbi Levin's brought in," said Aaron Straus, Ner Tamid's vice president.

"There are a lot of good things going on at the congregation. More people are attending services. Rabbi wants to start branching out into the community. He has a lot of good ideas, and we're trying to keep up with him."

From 1991 to 2001, Ner Tamid's membership dwindled from 390 families to 110. Levin, however, has big plans for the shul. The rabbi has already set up events with the Sunset's Chinese and Latino communities, and hopes the shul may one day become a center of social action akin to Glide Memorial Church.

To do so, however, Ner Tamid will have to remain a viable congregation. And the way to do that, Levin believes, is to fill a need within the Jewish community — serving "adults."

Levin says he's weaned his congregation off the notion that "the way to be a viable congregation is to have 30 bar mitzvahs a year, Hebrew school and kids running through the hall. That's not where Ner Tamid should focus its efforts, resources and money. I believe we should focus upon the needs of adults, singles young and old, couples young and old, newlyweds, empty-nesters, widows and widowers — people who live in the city."

Young families, Levin contends, are already served by shuls in the North or East Bay communities in which they reside, or, in San Francisco, by congregations like Emanu-El or Beth Sholom.

"By creating something truly meaningful for adults, adults will come. People travel across town to go to a concert or a good restaurant, so why not?"

One of the first steps that Levin has taken towards creating a "meaningful experience" is to invite classical pianists, flutists and even a guitarist to Shabbat services, as Levin quickly discovered his shul is two blocks away from the San Francisco Conservatory of Music.

Monthly Shabbat dinners that once attracted a handful of congregants now draw more than 100. A Thursday morning minyan is thriving, and even hosted the congregation's first wedding in ages.

Compared with past rabbis, Levin is "more modern, he brings music into everything and creates a good atmosphere," said 16-year-old Roy Sivan, who was recently confirmed by the rabbi.

"During services, he's up to date on everything. He knows what's going on in the world, he keeps it real. He brings a lot of happiness. He knows how to make everyone laugh, no matter what their age is."

Levin still resides in La Jolla, just north of San Diego, where he is rabbi emeritus of Congregation Beth El after serving 15 years at its pulpit. He flies to San Francisco on Wednesdays and returns to San Diego on Saturdays.

Levin, under contract until June of 2003, at first planned to serve as a short-term catalyst — a rabbi meant to revitalize Ner Tamid — and then move on to the writing and public speaking career he has long desired. Now, however, he's not so sure.

"San Francisco feels like home. I love walking by the stores and shops instead of through malls. I love finding one side of the street sunny and the other in shade," said the self-acknowledged "city boy," who has also led congregations in Los Angeles, Washington, D.C., and on the island of Curacao in the Dutch West Indies.

"I love the multiethnic, multiracial population and even fighting for a parking spot. It's just like New York, but condensed."

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi is a columnist at Mission Local. He is also former editor-at-large at San Francisco Magazine, former columnist at SF Weekly and a former J. staff writer.