What makes a successful rabbi? Rabbi Dr Abraham Levy’s memoir, A Rocky Road, (Halban, £20) written with Simon Rocker,illustrates how he inspired a community to reject the seductive call of assimilation and become more engaged with Jewish life. Under his leadership, the Spanish and Portuguese communities became synonymous with authentic, compassionate and tolerant Orthodoxy.
Someone who is in love constantly talks about their beloved and wishes others to admire them, too. This is Maimonides’s romantic model for a religious person who shares their love of God with others. It’s a description that fits Rabbi Levy (pictured) perfectly.
His steadfast commitment to God is matched by an equally staunch concern for his community’s religious development. Whereas some rabbis harbour the delusion that their flock is completely observant, Rabbi Levy is a realist. He understands people, and this lies at the foundation of his sophisticated approach to outreach and to halachah.
He refers to the teenage discussion groups he ran, but these were just one element of an environment in which congregants of all ages were encouraged to embark on a religious journey, sharing their thoughts, and challenging his ideas. No subject was off-limits.
But the commitment is not just cerebral. “A good Jew”, he teaches, “is someone who wants to be a better Jew.” He coaxes his congregants to upgrade their observance each year — and does so with charm and respect for others. Even the most secular Jew feels comfortable around him.
He describes his reticence to make kippot and tzitzit mandatory parts of his Naima Jewish Preparatory School’s uniform because of his desire to inspire his pupils to embrace the commandments out of love, rather than out of obedience to a school dress-code.
Lord Sacks teaches that a good leader creates followers, but a great leader creates other leaders. Rabbi Levy is a great leader; a high number of his students have become rabbis and educators.
In the closing chapters of the book, Rabbi Levy describes how, along with his fellow trustees of the Montefiore Endowment, he established a new semicha programme. Recently, this was augmented by a project to train dayanim, promoting scholarship among the rabbinate, and creating another generation of leaders in Levy’s own tradition of authentic, compassionate Orthodoxy.