• by Pamela Deutsch

    “Serious Jewish education should demand doing and learning, that changing lives is much more difficult than writing a lecture.”

    Levi grew up in Cleveland, Ohio in a very committed Jewish home; committed to Israel, and committed to Jewish tradition. He attended public schools, and simultaneously a rigorous daily Jewish/Hebrew education program, which met 10 hours a week. Levi’s parents in his own words were “profoundly Jewishly undereducated”.  However, their commitment to Jewish education was unshakeable and they overcompensated in how they educated their child.  Attendance at his Jewish education program was not up for discussion and as far as his parents were concerned being Jewish was the most important part of his identity and it was important that he know all about it. According to Levi, Cleveland’s eastern suburbs were a good place to grow up Jewish, because there is little else to do.  The Jewish community is very organized and they put the wealth to good use.

    Levi’s parents were leftist in their politics and humanistic in their understanding of the world.  His mother taught for many years in a school where almost everyone was African-American, and Levi grew up understanding that while life is be lived, paying attention to those who are disadvantaged is just as important. His household was one that took civil rights very seriously, but being a Jew was the most important part of your identity.

    “I always knew I wanted to be a Rabbi,” says Levi, as modeled by the rabbi in his synagogue, someone who was powerful and influential, who stood on the pulpit and gave sermons, but was not necessarily very learned.  Levi attended the University of Cincinnati, studying political science and simultaneously studied for a rabbinical degree at Hebrew Union College.  Spending his junior year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem was the most decisive year of his life for several reasons.  Being out of reach of his very protective parents taught him he could make it on his own.  Falling in love with Chaya, his wife of 44 years, made living in Israel crucial, as she was already committed to making aliyah.

    Levi went back to the US, completed his degrees, and worked for 4 years as Hillel Director at the University of Missouri.  The post included teaching at the University and serving as the rabbi of the synagogue in Columbia, Missouri.

    In 1976, the Lauer family made aliyah.   Chaya found work nearly immediately as a social worker at Hadassah Hospital.  Levi struggled to find work until after applying to be a student at Pardes, he was offered the job of director..

    Levi served as Director of Pardes for 17 years, taking an organization with 20 students and an overdrawn bank account to an organization with 85 students and money in the bank.  At the time, Pardes was the only co-ed, post-university, halachic institution of learning.  It was a place for seriously searching adult Jews who wanted an environment committed to halacha, but without insistence on any particular standard of halachic commitment and practice.  The young people who attended were among the best and the brightest; people who wanted to synthesize humanism and devotion, lishma – for its own sake, not for professional training.

    During these years, Levi describes two formative experiences.  One was serving in the Israel Defense Forces in a combat artillery unit.  His service taught him a lot about the implications of power, and what it is like to agree to a democratically made decision that you disagree with in political principle.  He also learned about his own capacities and tolerance that he never knew he had and also came into contact with all kinds of people to whom he would never had a chance to be exposed.

    The second was working for 6 summers at the Brandeis-Bardin Camp Institute in Simi Valley, California.  At the Institute, Levi had the opportunity to work with Alvin Mars and Danny Gordis, who helped him far better understand what good teaching was and his own capacities as teacher.

    After leaving Pardes, Levi spent time working at both Melitz and the Shalom Hartman Institute.  However, at a certain point he realized that doing is more important than learning for the sake of learning.  Serious Jewish education should demand doing and learning, that changing lives is much more difficult than writing a lecture. “It would be good if I were to be able to make a little difference dealing with urgent needs in Israel; affect younger people by giving them work and make it possible for them to be infected with an appetite for social activism.  Demand creates a kind of adrenalin – they will be so addicted to making a change in people’s lives that they will be addicted to it forever,” says Levi.

    ATZUM was established in 2002 with one of its goals exploring moving the beit midrash to the street.   It is an organization that addresses the needs of people too little attended or ignored and avoids duplicating the efforts of other organizations. Levi was inspired by Paul Farmer who believes that among the essential ingredients to being a serious agent of social change are the courage to fail (humility) and believing that you do not have the right to be tired.  This was particularly good for Levi as he has endless energy.  With the help of a devoted staff, ATZUM has grown from an organization that worked with 18 terror victims and their families to working with more than 450 families.  Its other projects include, working with Righteous Among the Nations, a task force against human trafficking, and an oral history project for Ethiopian teens and Ethiopian Prisoners of Zion.

    As I talked to Levi, I understood that ATZUM works because Levi juggles.  He is constantly on the phone, excels at putting people together,  and making 1+1 equal 3.

    Levy and Chaya live in Jerusalem.  They have 2 daughters and 2  grandchildren.

  • 2 Comments

    Take a look at some of the responses we've had to this article.

    1. Nadine E. Danziger
      Posted on March 16th

      As a First Cousin to Levi, I have been priviliged to see his good work first hand. I have also been able to watch him teach and extract powerful thought from those he taught. His devotion to his family, community, and all of Israel is awe inspiring.
      It should also be noted that with the seriousness of everything he does, he plays amean game of basketball and has a great sense of humor.

    2. bob jacobs
      Posted on January 11th

      as a college roommate of Levi, I never knew that he would turn into the of the great TZADIKS in todays world. I feel humbled by the work LEVI does and admire his lifelong commitment to humanity.

      My wife and I feel blessed to know Levi and to be able to be inspired by his teachings!

  • Post a Comment

    Let us know what you thought.

  • You must be logged in to post a comment.