Two truths and a lie:
Rabbi Lev speaks fluent Chinese
Rabbi Lev has biked 5,000 miles the last 19 years
Rabbi Lev almost became the Chief Rabbi of Sweden
Here is why it’s hard to play this game with Rabbi Judd Lev. His “truths” are so interesting that it would be hard to think of a lie that would be unusual enough to confuse people.
After a conversation with Rabbi Lev and some other students at lunch, where he mentioned that he almost became the Chief Rabbi of Sweden I knew I needed to hear more. I was not sure if he was kidding. He was not. But after talking to him, I can say that this may be one of the least interesting things about him. Rabbi Lev is a Renaissance man. He’s a scholar, a musician (he plays trombone and piano), he cooks (Mediterranean food), he bikes and backpacks with his family, and is a voracious reader particularly about US history and the colonial period. In his words, “there is no such thing as free time, just unscheduled time”. He would describe himself growing up as “Bohemian, artsy, ironic and a little quirky”. Most of all, he considers himself an optimist. In fact, he actually would wear a pin in school that said “OPTIMIST”, just in case anyone questioned that.
From the start, I knew it was not going to be a run of the mill interview. When you ask a rabbi who inspired him to become a rabbi and he answers the minister at his boarding school, his greatest mentor, you know to pay close attention. Even simple questions like “where did you go to school” had interesting answers.
Rabbi Lev went to Phillips Exeter Academy in Lexington, MA. It is a non-denominational school, but with Christian origins which is why they had a school minister. Through that minister they also had a small Shabbat service on Friday nights with Challah from a local bakery. They were the only students allowed to have wine on campus. Senior year he had a Passover seder in his dorm. From there he went on to Harvard where he double majored in History and Science, and The History of Science. He believes you can’t have history without science or science without history if you are going to be objective. His education culminated at JTS in New York for grad school for both a master’s degree and a PhD. So yes, he is Rabbi Doctor Lev.
He originally wanted to be a teacher. It is pretty clear that this started as early in 8th grade he became tour guide, dressed in full colonial costume, of historical sites in Lexington, Massachusetts, and later interned at the JFK Library. In college he was thinking of taking Hebrew until his parents suggested that maybe he should try something he had never done before (which gives you some insight to where his Renaissance outlook comes from), so he decided to take Mandarin Chinese. The summer after his sophomore year of college he went to China to teach English as a second language and really enjoyed it. However, while wandering the streets on Yom Kippur he had a revelation that even though he spoke the language, and was living in China, he was a Jewish guy that was never going to be Chinese. So, he headed home to study more Judaism.
Looking back, he muses “all the seeds were planted along the way” to inspire his ultimate career path, being a Rabbi. He’s a people person. As the rabbi at his parent’s synagogue told him when he was a teenager; ‘I’m a rabbi because I like people. If I didn’t like people I would work in a post office.’ Connecting with people, and helping them to see that Judaism “has something meaningful to say in their own lives.” Teaching what Judaism and Jewish values can say about the world from poverty to homelessness to the environment is at the root of what he hopes to teach. At the United Nations he was the “rep” for Judaism and was part of a global conversation with all the other religious traditions represented there. Even as a Rabbi, although he can describe God’s impact on people, he has a hard time describing that impact on himself. When he went to Israel for the first time, he didn’t like it. He found that the people were trying to change his Judaic beliefs and make him a different person. But as he came to understand, even if being Jewish is your identity, the secular culture you come from is married to that, which is why when the opportunity to become the Chief Rabbi of Sweden came up, he took a pass. Even though he has the “international bug” and loves cross country skiing, raising kids in Sweden would be challenging.
I think that the top songs on Rabbi Lev’s playlist really describe his life and philosophy; he calls it “Happy Tape”. According to him, “You can’t always get what you want” (by the Rolling Stones): The path you thought you should take is not always the path that leads to the greatest experiences in life. “Shut up and dance” (by Walk the Moon): Enjoy life, don’t overthink an opportunity, try everything. This is a philosophy worth considering because Rabbi Lev is definitely someone “Walking on Sunshine.” (by Katrina & the Waves).
So, in case you have not figured out what were the 2 truths and what was the lie… he has actually biked over 55,000 miles since 2003.