Roxborough rabbi stays busy - and inspiring

Posted: May 05, 2014

YAEL LEVY keeps herself busy.

In addition to serving as a supporting rabbi for Roxborough's Mishkan Shalom synagogue, she works as a spiritual director at Wyncote's Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and Hebrew Union College's New York City branch, helping steer future rabbis.

Earlier this year, Levy got some much-deserved recognition: She was named one of "America's Most Inspiring Rabbis" by the Jewish Daily Forward, a national publication.

"It's a lovely surprise, and it feels very honoring," said Levy, the only rabbi from Pennsylvania among the 28 selected.

But, to hear her to tell it, she's most proud of the congregation she's served for more than 20 years.

Who we are: Mishkan Shalom is a Reconstructionist Jewish community, which means it does not follow some of the mainstream tenets of Judaism, according to Levy.

"We wanted to create a community that's open to people who were not normally welcomed in the Jewish faith: gay or lesbian people, people with non-Jewish partners, people with strong leftist views on Israel," she said.

"It's a very big tent, where anyone who wants to be a part of it can join."

Mishkan Shalom was started in 1988 with a mission to "bring healing into the world," Levy said. It sprung from humble beginnings - informal meetings and lively debates held in the living rooms of its members.

Today, it's grown to include 220 households. Congregants travel from Montgomery County, New Jersey and beyond for weekly worship.

Where we worship: In 2002, after years of operating as a "roaming synagogue," Mishkan Shalom moved into a 150-year-old stone textile mill on Freeland Avenue near Shurs Lane in Roxborough.

"It's not a traditional synagogue at all, but that fits our style," Levy said. "We've done our best to keep the integrity of the building - we've kept the original wood beams and stone work - while also making it our own space."

Before finding their permanent home, the congregation met in various Quaker meetinghouses throughout the region and, for a few years, with the Chestnut Hill Methodist Church.

What we believe: The congregation's beliefs are, in a word, "eclectic."

"We have an array of beliefs," Levy said. "We're here to bring healing and love, and bring forth blessings, and we're walking a Jewish path to do that."

She described Mishkan Shalom as having respect for Jewish wisdom and tradition while also challenging some aspects that don't align with a Reconstructionist attitude. These include a belief of homosexuality as a sin, and that men and women aren't on equal footing in society.

"We reject anything that constricts others, that would say one person is better than another," Levy said.

People would be surprised to learn . . . That the synagogue is the personal place of worship for several rabbis, some who lead synagogues elsewhere, as well as others who, like Levy, work as spiritual advisers.

"It adds to the dynamic, to the richness of our worship," she said. "It can be very lonely, being a rabbi, and bringing them together creates a special kind of camaraderie."

At Mishkan Shalom, Shawn Zevit is the rabbi leading the rabbis. He took over as the synagogue's lead rabbi earlier this year, and has already made a profound impact on the congregation, Levy said.

"God is ... the unfolding mystery," Levy said. "In Judaism, the word for God is a verb, not a noun.

"We embrace the sense that God is a continuing unfolding of creation and life, and is a constant movement and change that's calling us to be."

On Twitter: @Vellastrations

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