Tish Levee moved to Northern California in 1977 as part of her plan to become an Episcopal minister. But it didn’t really work out that way for the now 80-year-old, who just celebrated her bat mitzvah at Congregation Beth Ami in Santa Rosa.
The ceremony was a step in a long spiritual journey for Levee, who converted 20 years ago and found in Judaism — and Beth Ami — the place she always wanted to be.
“It’s home,” she said. “And that’s what I felt the first time they opened the ark and I saw the Torah.”
Levee came to Judaism in a roundabout manner. She had always been a spiritual seeker, and had incorporated Native American and Celtic traditions into her own worship. But it was on a Christian Lenten pilgrimage to Israel in 1999 that she sensed an internal shift.
“I didn’t want to come back” to the United States, she said. “And when I came back, I was homesick for Israel, for Judaism.”
Levee didn’t rush into converting, but it was on her mind. One Saturday morning she decided she wanted to go to services at a synagogue. Levee dropped in to Beth Ami because the service times were printed in the paper. She wasn’t planning to stay. But she did.
“Within a year and a half of coming back, I was at the mikvah,” she said.
Levee converted at the Conservative synagogue under the leadership of Rabbi Jonathan Slater and has a firm place in the community under current rabbi Mordechai Miller, who officiated at her bat mitzvah.
“It was just lovely,” Miller said. “It exceeded expectations. Tish … it was a very important moment for her.”
“It’s kind of what I do,” she said. “It’s my shtick.”
And she’s brought that to her community. Among her volunteer work, she co-chairs the Beth Ami green committee, and with her help the congregation has reduced its landfill by half, saving the synagogue around $3,000 in fees, according to Levee. And there’s always something more to do.
“This week they’re ordering glass Kiddush cups,” Levee said proudly.
At 74, she hiked for four days to raise awareness and money for Sonoma County’s Climate Protection Campaign.
“I sometimes feel that she’s our conscience when it comes to those sorts of issues,” Miller said.
Levee also cares deeply about the people in her community. When she was 66, she donated a kidney to the father (since passed away) of a Beth Ami congregant who was there at Levee’s bat mitzvah, along with other close family and friends who participated in the ceremony. They came together to celebrate a woman who puts the planet — and others — first, and who has found a true spiritual home in Judaism.
“All the different aspects of what I was looking for come together in Judaism,” Levee said.