MEQUON – Rabbi Pinchas Levin, 49, was a hard-working teacher at a renowned yeshiva in Israel, called Mir Yeshiva, until the cancer.
“I have gone through a resurrection,” he said, no reference to other religions intended. “I’m a different person than I was.”
Levin is the new spiritual leader at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz of Mequon. He started March 1, 2019, following some recent turnover for that spot. Levin calls the position “a perfect fit for me.” Rabbi David Korngold, Esq. of Long Island, New York, had briefly served as the shul’s spiritual leader, after Rabbi Ira Grussgott left to be closer to family in New Jersey.
Levin believes Judaism should be “pleasant and purposeful” and that the goal of the Torah is to change the way we think, feel and act. Thus, the Torah can been seen as a spiritual approach to modern-day cognitive emotional behavioral therapy, he said. In this way, we can follow “guidelines from hashem of how to live” and “live a more dignified” and “holier life.”
Jerusalem’s Orthodox Mir Yeshiva is the largest yeshiva in the world. Levin was a teacher there when he was diagnosed with stage 4A nasopharynx cancer. The radiation took a lot out of him.
Learn with Rabbi Levin
Rabbi Pinchas Levin offers lessons Mondays 6:30-7:30 p.m., with questions and answers on controversial topics.
There is no charge, though donations are suggested. More information: 262-512-1195 or at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz’s Facebook page.
Also, see Levin’s site, ToraTutor.com.
“I was teaching them at a very high level,” he recalled. “I couldn’t teach at that level anymore. I need at least 12 hours of intense study (daily). I couldn’t handle it.”
At Mir Yeshiva it was his passion to show his students how to apply the study of Talmud to their lives, not just as theoretical exercise. This is part of what he’s driving at when he says Judaism should be “pleasant and purposeful.” He believes in a close, loving relationship with hashem.
His resurrection is that he decided he needed a new life, and his service at Congregation Anshai Lebowitz has offered him a fresh start. He said his services are like no others on Earth. Asked for an example, he said he starts every service with a concept from the Torah – loving the fellow man as yourself. During the service he explains things in English and feels it’s his role to say what’s best for congregants to hear, not what he might otherwise say.
“I never tell anybody what to do,” he said.
In addition to leading the congregation, he started ToraTutor.com to teach his approach to Judaism to the world, as best he can. The site is not currently set up to accept donations.
“Since the cancer I don’t care,” he said. “I don’t care too much for money.”
Congregation Anshai Lebowitz has an unusual mechitza situation, the mechitza being the separation barrier between men and women in Orthodox sanctuaries. Most synagogues either have a mechitza or they don’t. Anshai Lebowitz picks a third, highly unusual path. It offers options to congregants: Sit together or sit separated.
“In Jewish law it’s a serious problem. All my friends and relatives, they would not be the rabbi here. I also wouldn’t,” he said. His former self “would never daven here.”
But he’s decided he needs to be accepting, to give people an opportunity to come along someday. Besides, the mechitza rule relates to preventing a certain lightheadedness among congregants, which can come from mixing, he said. Yet there are shuls where people are full of lightheadedness, despite their more traditional approach to the mechitza.
The lesson he’s learned for himself: “Speak to them according to who they are, not according to who you are.”
The foundation for that lesson has come from two places. First, his father, a modern Orthodox rabbi and a ba’al teshuvah (one who becomes observant later in life), taught him not to look down on others. Second, he spent a year in Johannesburg after the cancer diagnosis, where he drank in an open, accepting Jewish culture there.
It was almost five years ago that he was diagnosed.
“They got it just in time. It was right after I married off my first daughter. Too early would have ruined the wedding,” he said.
“That was an intervention from hashem to change my life.”