Religious Life Leader Profiles: Rabbi Lauren Levy H’97 ’01 P’01 ’02 ’09
If you ever take a class in the Religion and Philosophy Department or attend Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat, you might have the opportunity to meet the only full-time rabbi at a non-denominational independent school in the world.
If you ever take a class in the Religion and Philosophy Department or attend Friday night Kabbalat Shabbat, you might have the opportunity to meet the only full-time rabbi at a non-denominational independent school in the world. As a Religion Master and the School Rabbi, Lauren Levy H’97 ’01 P’01 ’02 ’09 has been teaching at Lawrenceville for 32 years. She grew up in a Jewish household surrounded by people with a wide variety of faiths, and as a young adult, she knew she wanted to study all religions. For example, her best friend growing up, who lived across the street from her, was a Methodist Christian, and she would often ask if she could go to church with her.
However, she did not consider be- coming a Rabbi until she was in high school. After a Jewish youth group meeting, her high school friend mentioned that he was planning on be- coming a Rabbi. Though at first she was surprised, it expanded her view on what she could do with her life. When she decided that she wanted to become a Rabbi herself, she was torn because she didn’t necessarily want to lead a congregation and was much more interested in education, which was one of the factors that ultimately lead to her job at Lawrenceville. After studying religion as both an undergraduate and graduate student, she began working in Campus Ministries at Rutgers University. During this time, a former rabbinic colleague suggested coming to Lawrenceville part time. Levy immediately felt a connection to the students here. However, this was still not a full time commitment until Martin Gruss ’60, the benefactor of the Gruss Center for Art and Design, created a unique full-time position, a teaching Rabbi, through an endowment. “I realized the uniqueness of my position... It’s hard to hobnob with my fellow wizards because there’s nobody else that has this position,” she said.
After settling into Lawrenceville, she eventually taught a course titled Great Jewish Books. Inspired by one of the required reading books in the course, Sholem Aleichem’s Tevye the Dairyman and The Railroad Stories— which features a Jewish man who rode the trains of Eastern Europe and interviewed people—she also embarked on a journey throughout Eastern Europe and Western Asia on a train. Along the way, she also talked with many people in hopes of getting a better understanding of their religion and background.
Later, on a separate itinerary created by a former student during an independent study, Levy and the student went to Shanghai, Nanjing, and Kaifeng in China. There, Levy learned about the spiritual identity of Chinese citizens who claim Jewish ancestry from the eighth to the ninth century in Kaifeng and Nanjing and visited the enclave in Shanghai that had been occupied by Jews during the Holocaust. This international exploration of other religions deeply impacted how she views spirituality today—she feels that religion is too often viewed as divisive.“I think that religion can be helpful to people as long as they don’t...create divides because of it but rather use it as a bridge to better understand people,” Levy said. She also shared that when she was go- ing through medical complications last year, many students and families of Lawrenceville reached out to her sending their prayers. Before her temporary departure, she hosted one last Friday night Shabbat where they collectively sent out a prayer—a show of true family and spiritual unity. Levy’s role in academia also makes her an integral part of the community. Occupying a position as both a Rabbi and a Religious Master al- lows her to intellectually challenge herself. On her interest in academia, Levy said, “I love being asked questions. I love to think. I love to en- courage my students to think [and] at the same time experience, so it’s not just promoting good thinking— it’s encouraging the process long after they’re going to interact with me.”