But Levin isn't mired in anger, fear or shame. "God created this world as a place of challenges. ... There is a reason for darkness. The challenges give us strength and make us shine," he said.
On Feb. 26, it will be Levin's turn to shine. On his 50th birthday, a grateful Jewish community will fete him and wife Dena for 25 years of providing a positive example. The couple has been pivotal in building a vibrant Jewish community in Palo Alto, through Chabad of Greater South Bay, many in the community said.
Sporting a long, flowing beard, broad-brimmed black hat, black suit and white shirt that are the trademarks for men of Chassidism (pronounced Ha-SID-ism) — an ultra-orthodox denomination — the affable rabbi has built his reputation on the simple ideas of inclusiveness and understanding.
"I might look different, but I'm just a regular guy," Levin, 49, said.
His modest self-assessment underscores what many find so appealing about Levin. He has conducted his work modestly, one person at a time, resulting in significant accomplishments: helping the local Jewish community develop; reconnecting Jews to their faith; and giving support and sustenance to those in need — including non-Jews.
Chabad (pronounced Ha-BOD, a Hebrew acronym meaning wisdom and understanding) began as a movement in Russia more than 250 years ago and emphasized the need to reach out to others — economically, socially or spiritually.
Once considered a fringe element of the Chassidic movement, there are now more than 3,000 Chabad centers worldwide, Levin said.
Palo Alto's Chabad Center had a humble start in 1975, when Rabbi Aaron Berkowitz was asked by the community to form the first local Chabad. The synagogue was in his garage, Levin said. It has since moved to Louis Road.
These days, Saturday services draw about 70 people, but the synagogue counts 2,700 families on its mailing list and has 730 contributors. Through their programs, Levin estimates they serve 12,000 people a year.
When the Levins first came to Palo Alto in 1980, there was "very little organized Jewish community," said Rabbi Bruce Feldstein, M.D., head of the Jewish Chaplaincy at Stanford University Medical Center. He was referring to the lack of kosher delis and other Jewish services as well as a lack of cooperation between synagogues.
The seeds for the foundation of the local Jewish community were planted with the synagogues at Beth Am, Kol Emeth and the Orthodox Minyan, according to Sheila Levin Rinde, a historian of the Chabad movement.
But some say there was also a separateness of the groups.
Ten years ago, Robert Nio, chairman of Chabad's board, was searching for the sort of religious community he experienced in Germany. Denominations there freely mix amid an Orthodox ceremony, but in the Bay Area he felt isolated.
"Moving here ... there was fractiousness, where people didn't mix, but Chabad and Rabbi Levin brought unity among many groups," he said.
"He's been a pioneer in the community. ... There was a lot of animosity between different denominations. ... One thing about Rabbi Levin is his openness to anyone in the Jewish community from any background," Feldstein said.
The greater Bay Area has since become the third largest Jewish community in the country, with Palo Alto having the highest concentration, he said. The population is now thriving, with the Jewish Community Center, Jewish Family and Children's Services, bob and bob bookstore, grocery stores with kosher foods, Izzy's kosher bagels, Jewish day schools and even a Jewish high school.
The Levins also expanded their outreach with Chabad centers at Stanford, Mountain View and Sunnyvale.
Chabad has "opened a door for people to share their culture publicly," said Vivian Deutsch, who met her husband Phil through a "match" arranged by Dena Levin. Public events inclusive of non-Jews — such as a public menorah lighting with Beth Am, a Los Altos Hills Reform congregation — and outreach to the non-Jewish community through acts of goodwill are ways Levin has opened the door to understanding, she added.
Feldstein said only 36 percent of Bay Area Jews are affiliated with an Orthodox, Conservative or Reform synagogue. The rest are unaffiliated, secular Jews who connect "in a cultural kind of way," he added.
This group knows little or nothing about their religion, Levin said, and his aim is to make available to them all tools for building an appreciation of their faith.
"Many Jews are not involved in the community. Many are afraid of commitment; they're afraid to approach religion; they have a fear of acceptance. In the old shtetl, people had an infrastructure. Our focus is (building) a community people don't have, so we reach out to bring it to them," Levin said.
Some people still shy away from the group, fearing a hard sell by proselytizing conservatives, but Chabad's "focus is outreach, not worship," Levin said.
"I'm not a missionary in any sense of the word. We are helping people who are Jewish to understand who they are," he said. If someone is hungry, or if someone is spiritually hungry, one offers sustenance without judgment, he added.
Chassidism's 613 laws can be daunting while navigating through the 21st century. For example, men and women can only touch their spouses, not even shaking hands with others.
Levin lets people choose what they are capable of handling, he said.
"When someone decides to live a religious life, they tend to go head-over-heels," Levin said. When that happens, he advises them to step back and go slowly, he added.
Levin invites people from all walks of life to his Friday evening Shabbat (Sabbath) dinners. He and Dena invite people to their home for dinner and conversation. A community dinner is held at the synagogue monthly.
It's a good place for those who are unfamiliar with their religion to glimpse some of the traditions that set it apart.
Driving isn't allowed from sundown Friday through sunset Saturday; neither is using a phone, shopping, taking a photograph, doing business, turning on lights, lighting a fire, using writing utensils or carrying anything — such as a purse or baby stroller.
These are not restrictions, Levin said. It is a time for the soul to be recharged. That is best done by removing everything associated with the every day.
An hour before sundown on a recent Friday evening, families hurried in the fading light, converging on the Chabad Center for prayer services and the monthly community meal.
A white cloth partition separated men from women in the synagogue, which doubles as the place for Shabbat dinner. Men and boys, many in broad-brimmed black hats and yarmulkes —beanie head coverings — bobbed back and forth in prayer. Modestly dressed women, whose natural hair must be covered by hats and wigs, prepared food, talked in whispers, or recited prayers behind the curtain.
A box of matches sat conspicuously displayed on one of the dining tables, and Chaya Cadaner faced a dilemma.
The 21-year-old Chabad intern had to find a way to gently ask a non-Jew to remove the matchbox and put it out of view. A devout Orthodox Jew, after sundown Cadaner could not touch any implement used in making fire. Mission accomplished, Cadaner later discussed her view of the strict rules to which she adheres.
Each act helps open her to enlightenment.
"By the time you turn 16, you make a choice. This is something I chose. It gave me a centering and confidence," she said.
The men sang, beseeching the metaphorical "Shabbat Queen" to bring on the light of God.
Their voices at times took on a shimmering, horn-like quality — clear and purposeful, filling the room with a warm joy.
Prayers ended, the curtains were parted. Women, men and children mingled freely, lining up for ritual hand washing. Some gave greetings of "Good Shabbos."
Levin said a blessing over a silver wine glass. He drank deeply from the cup, dividing up the remainder, and passed plastic cups of blessed wine around to other tables. Plates laden with kosher salad, pasta and gefilte fish were passed around.
It was a good night. More than 60 people were in attendance — some for the first time — and many were of denominations other than Orthodox. Some were Conservative, others Reform. Levin counted 17 among his "regulars."
Lois, a high school teacher, attended the Shabbat services and dinner at the urging of friends.
"I didn't know many Jewish people. ... I saw the people here were all happy, very warm people. Chabad has been a welcoming place, a place for gathering, where I could be surrounded by positive energy," she said.
After dinner, Levin took questions. People broached philosophical topics; they wanted to know why bad things happen to good people, or if the Second Coming is near and whether the udder of a cow constitutes milk or meat.
Levin addressed each one. He couldn't say why bad things happen, but talked again about the power of darkness to bring light.
"We're taught that it's not necessary to go beyond oneself. Preservation is our tendency. A person who connects with a higher purpose sees a reason for darkness," he said.
The theme of food invariably comes up in Levin's work. It has become his metaphor for the social work that is part of the Jewish identity.
In his Louis Road office, Levin offered a guest a steaming cup of coffee and illustrated his case in point.
A woman in crisis came to his office. Levin offered her a cup of coffee. As she sipped from the cup, the woman began to open up. Levin learned she was in danger of losing her home and saw no way out. As she drank the coffee, Levin made a phone call.
After that, the woman was able to secure a loan.
"I never realized the impact of a cup of coffee until that moment. It's kind of an inbred thing; it's a very Jewish thing to offer something to eat," he said.
Chabad has enjoyed other successes by reaching out to the community.
One of its greatest impacts has been through the Friendship Circle for children with disabilities, according to parent Nancy Brook.
Teenage "buddies" are paired with young children monthly for Jewish-themed crafts projects and music. Each week, a young teen also visits a child's home for a one-hour playtime.
"It's been an amazing experience for our children to have positive role models. The kids get to be part of a group. It builds a lot of self-esteem.
"Some kids have a hard time building relationships," she said, choking back tears. "These are noncompetitive, special friendships that promote nice Jewish values."
Two of the Levins' 13 children come weekly to play with Brook's children.
"My little girls wait at the window for their buddy to come. It's a huge deal, to foster that relationship," Brook said.
Winter camp, a special four-day event, allows children with special needs to experience the joys of camp without going far from home.
"They went bowling; they learned camp songs. They created a little camp with their buddies. They went swimming, and (their buddies) combed their hair. They looked after them. The kids felt so important," she added.
Reaching out to the most isolated is where Levin does his most potent work; work that is invisible to the rest of the community, Feldstein said.
He knew of a patient at Stanford Hospital who survived the Holocaust in Budapest by hiding in sewers. Levin took him under his wing.
"When he came to this country, he had no family. Chabad became his family," Feldstein said.
The Holocaust decimated the population and damaged the Jewish religion, Levin said. "We have to reach out and rebuild. My people need to go out to the world."
The public is invited to 25th Anniversary of Rabbi and Dena Levin's Service to the Community. The champagne brunch takes place Sunday, Feb. 26 at 11:30 a.m. at the Santa Clara Convention Center, Santa Clara. Advance tickets are $75. Contact Chaya at (650) 424-9800 or Phil Deutsch at (650) 739-0251.
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