Rabbi Naomi Levy with her family’s pet pygmy goats in the backyard of their Venice home. Photo by Westside People
The leader of Nashuva in Brentwood was among the first class of ordained female rabbis
By David Rosenfeld
The first thing you notice at a Shabbat service led by Rabbi Naomi Levy is the music. An eight-piece band with a complete drum set accompanies the evening at the Brentwood Presbyterrean Church.
Part rabbi, part lead-singer, Levy leads the Jewish community they call Neshuva, which means “we will return.” It’s a fitting name for a group Levy founded in 2004 with the intention of reaching Jews searching for a spiritual practice.
Shabbat services with Nashuva include all kinds of music from rock, African and reggae with traditional Jewish songs and prayers. She adds a period of meditation, something she says has always been a part of the Jewish tradition, though largely ignored by traditional synagogues. All the services too are webcast over the internet through the Jewish Journal, a publication her husband founded.
“I didn’t want to feel like looking back at my rabbinic life that I could have done something but I didn’t even try,” Levy said. “Nashuva was born as an attempt to reach the kind of Jews that don’t belong to synagogue and to find a language and sense of music and prayers that are coming from a contemporary place.”
It was during a rabbinical at a Venice synagogue when she first started to get the idea for a new type of Jewish community. Those in the neighborhood might walk into a service she was giving and she could almost count how long they would stay, she said.
“More and more I was learning that so many unaffiliated Jews are deeply spiritual. And they are finding their spirituality outside of the synagogue,” she said. “Jews are highly overrepresented in American Buddhism given our size as a people. So my goal was to address the spiritual quest of the Jewish seeker and begin that journey with the outsider.”
Nashuva has grown to more than 1,000 members, though there is no formal membership process by design. And there are no mandatory offerings or tickets to high holidays. Nashuva typically holds high holidays in Temescal Canyon that looks more like a concert in the park than a religious service.
Jared Levy, no relation, discovered Nashuva through one of the band members he represented as a manager. His friend suggested he attend one of the services about seven years ago and Jared’s been going ever since.
“I was just blown away with the soul that she brought to it,” he said. “I had just never been to a religious service like that before. It really brought me back to Judaism.”
Three years ago, Naomi conducted the ceremony at Jared’s wedding. Growing up, he said he went to high holidays and had a bar mitzvah but never really connected to the services.
“A lot of times you’re just reading the words and sometimes don’t even know what they mean because it was just a ritual and tradition,” he said. “Naomi brought a lot of heart to it, so I really got the meaning and the love behind Judaism much more than I’d ever gotten before.”
On a monthly basis the group commits to volunteer service like assisting the homeless on skid row. And each Thanksgiving they host a meal for homeless in South Central Los Angeles.
Levy, who was among the first class of female rabbis to be ordained in the conservative tradition, said her adaptation of the service has been extremely well-received.
“In the beginning I was a little concerned that this might cause problems,” she said. “But the reality is I’ve probably gotten more positive feedback from trying something different than what I was doing before that was more pro-forma.”
Levy said she wanted to be a rabbi at age four, far before women were being ordained. It wasn’t until her senior year in college at Cornell in 1984 that women were first accepted into the conservative Jewish seminary, and she joined the first class.
Today the mother of two lives with her husband and youngest daughter in Venice. It’s here the family keeps an organic vegetable garden complete with chickens and a pair of pygmy goats. They can’t help make the backyard feel like a scene from Jerusalem right in the heart of Venice, in many ways the epitome of the spiritual practice she promotes through Nashuva.
“We try and bring the most powerful spiritual connected understanding of what Judaism is to people where they’re at,” she said. “And really we’re just teaching what already exists in Judaism that people just assume it doesn’t have.”