In many ways, Rabbi J. Leonard Levy was ahead of his time.
During his 16-year tenure as the spiritual leader of Rodef Shalom Congrega-tion, from 1901 until his death in 1917, Levy emphasized issues of social justice, the weight of character and the responsibility to build Jewish community — all issues that remain of vital contemporary concern.
His life and legacy will be celebrated, marking 100 years since his death, on Sunday, April 30, from 1 to 4 p.m. in Levy Hall at Rodef Shalom.
“I’ve been studying Rabbi Levy for several years, and the more I study, the more I find him to be a role model for the 21st century,” said Martha Berg, Rodef Shalom’s archivist.
Levy, who had a “magnetic” personality, according to Berg, spoke emphatically on issues ranging from labor, to immigration, to education policy and was influential in shaping the principles of the Pittsburgh Reform Jewish movement.
“He was a very significant figure at Rodef Shalom,” Berg said, noting that he met with four U.S. presidents (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt, William Taft and Woodrow Wilson), and corresponded with both Roosevelt and Taft. At Levy’s invitation, Taft visited Rodef Shalom on May 29, 1909, marking the first time a sitting president spoke from the bimah of a Jewish congregation during Sabbath services.
Levy came to Rodef Shalom following his service at congregations in Bristol, England, Sacramento, Calif., and Philadelphia. When he arrived in Pittsburgh, he worked to not only grow Rodef Shalom and Reform Judaism, but also to strengthen interfaith communication, according to Berg.
A compelling speaker, with a “dramatic preaching style,” Berg said, congregational membership at Rodef Shalom doubled within the first year of Levy’s pulpit.
In addition to holding Shabbat services, Levy also preached on Sundays to accommodate the schedules of workers who could not attend on Saturday.
Speakers at the commemorative event will include Berg, Karen Hochberg, a co-chair of the event, and Eric Lidji, a local writer and researcher. The program will include an interfaith panel discussion featuring the Rev. Liddy Barlow, executive minister of Christian Associates of Southwest Pennsylvania, Imam Abdul Wajid of the Islamic Center of Pittsburgh, and Rabbi Paul Tuchman of Temple B’nai Israel. Rabbi Walter Jacob, rabbi emeritus and senior scholar at Rodef Shalom, will also speak, and Rabbi Aaron Bisno, senior rabbi at Rodef Shalom will facilitate the interfaith panel.
Berg will highlight Levy’s work in social justice, while Lidji will discuss the parallels between Levy’s work in building the Reform Jewish community with the work of Rabbi Aaron Mordechai Ashinsky, who did similar work in the local Orthodox community.
Hochberg will highlight Levy’s emphasis on character development.
Hochberg became inspired by Levy several years ago when she read a quote from Rabbi Solomon Freehof.
“Rabbi Freehof said that as a result of Rabbi Levy, ‘Jews were prouder, men were kinder, and God was nearer,’” Hochberg said. “When I heard that quote, I wanted to learn more.”
In honor of Rodef Shalom’s 150th anniversary in 2008, Hochberg did significant research to prepare a presentation about Levy.
“He was remarkable for his time,” she said. “He was a renowned thought leader of his day, and he was the first English-speaking rabbi at Rodef Shalom. Children loved him.”
His accomplishments were many during his tenure in Pittsburgh and included inviting Booker T. Washington to speak at Rodef Shalom “on the value of a Negro education,” according to Hochberg.
“He’s such an untold story,” she said. “And he was dealing with many of the same issues we’re dealing with today.”
In an effort to further interfaith understanding, Levy presented a series of lectures in 1905 called “Founders of Faith,” in which he discussed Buddha, Zoroaster, Jesus, Mohammed and Moses. At the April 30 event, which is free and open to the public, Barlow will read and react to the lecture about Jesus, and Wajid will read and react to the lecture about Mohammed. Tuchman will read and react to the lecture about Moses.
Levy died at the age of 51 from pneumonia. His funeral drew a crowd of more than 10,000 mourners, Hochberg said.
To attend the April 30 event, RSVP on Facebook at Prophetic Voice of Reform: J. Leonard Levy. The first 200 people will receive a free copy of “J. Leonard Levy: Prophetic Voice,” published in 1970 by Freehof and Vigdor Kavaler.
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.