It was Friday morning in the day-care classroom at Mishkon Tephilo Synagogue, and the teacher welcomed a smiling young woman who came to look in on the children's pre-Sabbath snack.
"Who's this?" the teacher asked as the children chewed on their braided challah (egg bread) and spilled their grape juice. "Is it the Sabbath queen?"
"No," they squealed. "It's the rabbi!"
They were right. The Sabbath queen would come later, wafting in with the smell of chicken soup to symbolize the day of rest in Jewish homes. But this was Rabbi Naomi Levy, a 26-year-old Talmudic scholar who reported for work this month as the rabbi of their troubled synagogue.
Levy is not the first female rabbi in Los Angeles, but she is the first outside the East Coast to lead a congregation of the Conservative movement, the largest of the three major branches of American Judaism.
Mishkon Tephilo's previous full-time rabbi, also a bright young scholar, fled after three years of rancor, and many of the young people he had attracted dropped away. Some of the older generation went elsewhere or passed on.
But the arrival of Naomi Levy has brought new life to Mishkon Tephilo, whose name in Hebrew means Tabernacle of Prayer.
The olive green walls have been painted a bright sea-blue to stand out on a newly gentrified stretch of Main Street that straddles the line between Santa Monica and Venice.
From a high of 240 families in the early and mid-1980s, membership has dropped to 160, but synagogue leaders hope that Levy will bring in some of the large number of unaffiliated Jews believed to be living in the area. Many of them are single, divorced or otherwise different from the traditional families that make up a typical suburban synagogue, and Mishkon Tephilo's membership reflects that diversity, said Stan Dorn, a director of the synagogue.
"Judaism isn't what it was when they were 13 (the age of bar mitzvah, the rite of passage that means the end of organized religion for many youngsters). By challenging people with a woman rabbi who's sharp as a tack, maybe we can bring them back," Dorn said.
Levy comes well recommended by her teachers at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, where she was named outstanding rabbinical student and outstanding student of Jewish law, and by members of Temple Beth Am in San Antonio, Tex., where she commuted once a month last year to lead prayers and study groups while she finished her rabbinical studies. The rabbi is also an unpublished poet and an expert on modern Israeli poetry.
"She was an extremely intelligent, wonderfully bright student, with a very, very keen literary sense, a good interpreter of (Biblical) texts, asking good questions of the texts and demanding that they speak to modern issues, which makes her a good rabbi," said Burton Visotzky, a professor of Jewish law at the seminary.
Intellect and Depth
"We got a call from (Mishkon Tephilo)," said Paul Mohl, ex-president of the San Antonio synagogue. "I told them they should grab her while they could, because she has the intellect and the depth to be a scholar and academician if she wants to go that route. She has the sensitivity to go the counseling route if she wants to do that, and she had the skills to be a first-rate pulpit rabbi."
An honors graduate of Cornell University, Levy attended an academically demanding high school that was strictly traditional Orthodox, even though her parents belonged to a Conservative synagogue.
Unlike the Conservative and Reform movements, Orthodoxy does not ordain women rabbis.
"It was a Conservative Jewish household that really stressed Jewish education, so I always went to Orthodox yeshivas ," Levy said, referring to day schools.
She knew from early childhood that she wanted to be a rabbi, but it was hard to reconcile that with the role of women in Orthodox Judaism, which she describes as "problematical."
"I knew that I had a place. It wasn't in the kitchen," she said. "What makes religion important, from my perspective, is that there's such a rich tradition of ritual, and I think it's important to feel a tangible connection to tradition and to something beyond yourself, and I never really understood it, except for watching men at services, reading the Torah (Bible scroll), or wearing a kippah, tallit and tefilin ," referring to the skullcap, ritual shawl and leather boxes that observant Jews wear during prayers.
"I knew there was power in it," Levy said. "Not ruling power, but religious power. Spiritual power. There's a whole world of ritual, something tactile, that you can touch and feel and that is important in creating a spiritual feeling."
But, although the Reform movement and the much smaller Reconstructionist branch ordained their first women rabbis in the early 1970s, the Conservative movement's Jewish Theological Seminary did not open its rabbinical program to women until 1984, so she had few role models, Levy said.