Chai Levy dances with Roger Studley after his marriage proposal on Masada during a 2006 congregational trip.
Chai Levy dances with Roger Studley after his marriage proposal on Masada during a 2006 congregational trip.

Rules of (Jewish) engagement — how I came to live my Judaism 24/7

Until me, no one in my family had visited Israel since 1950, when my great-grandmother made the journey by boat from New York for a yearlong visit to bring supplies to her niece Shifra. Originally from Vilna, a young woman on her own after the war, Shifra found a new home in Tel Aviv and opened a café on Dizengoff Street. On my teen trip to Israel in 1988, I visited Shifra in her café, bopping in with my new Israeli suntan, declaring “I’m Yehudis’s great-granddaughter!” She welcomed me in like family and heated me up a schnitzel.

My connection to Israel — and subsequent choice to become a rabbi — is a Jewish engagement success story. I grew up in a nonobservant home, attending synagogue only on High Holidays. We didn’t keep kosher or observe Shabbat. As a child, however, I was recruited by a friend to attend Camp Ramah, an extremely positive experience that led to my attending Ramah Seminar in Israel (the six-week aforementioned teen trip). That trip led to my desire to spend my junior year of college at Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which was the first of three years I spent in Israel as a young adult doing various programs geared toward diaspora Jews.

This is the domino effect of Jewish and Israel engagement for young people. Each experience inspires the next one.

What inspired me as a teenager and young adult in Israel was the experience of living Judaism 24/7 in a way I had never known growing up in the diaspora in suburban Richmond, Virginia. Hebrew was no longer filling in baffling workbooks in afternoon Hebrew school or memorizing prayers from a cassette tape provided by the cantor before my bat mitzvah. Hebrew became a living language, a revived language, where words spoken on the street evoked biblical notions and repurposed ancient meanings. Shabbat and holidays were no longer days that didn’t fit into my public school calendar or into the schedule of the secular American environment of my upbringing.

In Israel, I experienced the rhythm of Jewish life where the flow of seasons and celebrations all fit perfectly together into a beautiful jigsaw puzzle. Rather than feeling the alienation of being out of sync with the culture in which I was raised (“Why do I have to sing Christmas carols in the December school assembly?” or “I loved Shabbat at camp, but all of my friends are going to my high school football game on Friday night, so do I just stay home alone?”), in Israel, I felt deeply at home among my people, in the land of our history, where I could live and breathe our culture, where our traditions were no longer relics of the past, but vibrant and dynamic ways to live a beautiful and meaningful life in the present. In Israel, I discovered that Judaism could be lived full time, and I wanted that for my life.

I considered making aliyah, but ultimately decided that I could be more effective in the world living Judaism full time as a rabbi in the United States. I hoped that I could help others fall in love with Judaism the way I had. Even as my understanding of the complexities of Israeli society and politics evolved with age, the connection to Israel formed in my youth has remained in my heart, and I am grateful to those formative experiences that set me on this sacred and transformative life path of full-time Judaism.

70 years of Israeli statehood! Israel Independence Day kicks off the evening of April 18. To mark the occasion, J. asked dozens of Bay Area Jews to reflect on seven decades of the Jewish state. New ones will be posted daily here.

Rabbi Chai Levy
Rabbi Chai Levy

Rabbi Chai Levy has served Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon since 2002 and will become the rabbi of Congregation Netivot Shalom in Berkeley beginning this summer.