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Rabbi Mark Levin reflects on his 38 years on the pulpit in K.C.

Rabbi Mark H. Levin will retire as the pulpit rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah at the end of June and assume the title of founding rabbi.

After 38 years as a rabbi — all of that time serving congregations in the Kansas City area — Rabbi Mark H. Levin is ready to relax a little. He’s been the pulpit rabbi for 25 of those years at Congregation Beth Torah, the congregation he helped found in 1988 with a handful of others committed to creating a modern American Jewish community in southern Johnson County. He has been a rabbi in this city longer than any other currently serving a local congregation full-time. Of those rabbis, he also has the longest tenure at one congregation of any “senior” rabbi here. 

It’s very unusual for a rabbi to spend his entire career in one Jewish community. It’s certainly something Rabbi Levin never thought would happen.

“It was the furthest thing from my mind,” he said in a recent interview.

Most rabbis in the Reform movement work as an assistant rabbi at a large congregation for a few years and then move on, often times getting their own pulpits. Rabbi Levin came to The Temple, Congregation B’nai Jehudah in 1976 after being ordained that same year by Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.

“My first contract was for two years. I got engaged in the second year and they wanted me to commit to a second, three-year contract next. But we told them we couldn’t commit to that because we thought we were certainly going to be in another city by the fifth year.”

“Thirty-eight years later, I’m still here.”

Getting that first job wasn’t so easy.

“There were five of us in my class who did not get hired during the first phase of interviews. We were also the only single rabbis in the class,” Rabbi Levin recalled. But soon after those first interviews, he was highly recommended for the job at B’nai Jehudah, where he stayed for 12 years.

Rabbi Levin’s time at B’nai Jehudah didn’t end happily. By then he had built a solid reputation and was looking at several opportunities outside the area. He was offered a position at Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple and he was prepared to move his family to the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood. That’s when the movers and shakers behind the seedling of what was to become Beth Torah asked him to stay. 

“Those who were involved in the creation of Beth Torah felt an urgent sense that Kansas City could ill afford to lose a rabbi with the magnitude of skills and humanity that Mark Levin exemplifies,” wrote Cheryl Hall Harris and Eileen Garry in the book “Voices: Recollections from the Early Days of Congregation Beth Torah,” published in honor of the congregation’s 10th anniversary in 1998.

Beth Torah

One of Rabbi Levin’s proudest accomplishments is Beth Torah.

“Over the years we have worked very hard to make it the best we could possibly create.” 

To do that, Rabbi Levin always made sure the congregation was among the country’s most innovative congregations. It was the first congregation here to invite families to arrive before the beginning of religious school on Sunday mornings to eat breakfast and visit with other families. Following breakfast, families gathered in the sanctuary where they attended services as a family before classes began. The congregation also participated in the Reform movement’s Synagogue 2000 program and the ECE, Experiment in Community Education in the late 1990s.

After obtaining the National Association of Temple Educator’s accreditation within the last year, Rabbi Levin and the congregation heeded NATE’s advice to redesign its Hebrew program, once again becoming an innovator in Jewish education in the city.

His commitment to learning goes beyond religious school. A believer in lifelong education, he led the congregation’s efforts to provide study opportunities for all ages. Rabbi Levin also paid particular attention to the construction of his sermons, putting a lot of information in them as another way to provide learning experiences for his congregants.

Dedicated to tikkun olam

Rabbi Levin has devoted much of his time here to social justice activities. His concern for others goes back to before he was a rabbi. As a student — the Baltimore native graduated magna cum laude with distinction in religion in 1971 from Boston University — he protested the Vietnam War.

He is “very passionate” about Israel, and his love for the Jewish State began during the days he studied there while he was a rabbinical student at HUC-JIR. In addition to his rabbinical ordination, he also earned his Master of Arts in Hebrew letters in 1974 and his Certificate in Jewish Communal Studies in 1974 from the institution. Most recently, Rabbi Levin completed his Doctorate of Hebrew Letters through HUC-JIR in New York in May 2001, and his honorary Doctor of Divinity in 2001 in Cincinnati. 

His love of Israel continues to this day. He and his wife Kacy are leading a Beth Torah 10-day trip to Israel in June. The Levins blended family include five children and one granddaughter. Over the years he has served on several local boards, written religion columns for the Kansas City Star, and answered questions for the “Ask the Rabbi” service of the Union of Reform Judaism.

Early in his rabbinical career he championed the Soviet Jewry movement, succeeding in resettling many former Soviet Jews in the Kansas City area and meeting such notables at former Soviet dissident Natan Sharanksy, now chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel.

Then and now, the Reform rabbi enthusiastically supports projects that help the needy. Through the years Beth Torah has supported reStart, even sponsoring all the meals at the shelter for an entire month and assisting Pleasant Green Baptist Church provide holiday meals for the needy for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Under Rabbi Levin’s leadership the congregation has been a huge supporter of Harvesters, Yachad: The Kosher food Pantry and now the JFS Food Pantry.

“Before the JFS Food Pantry was established last year, Beth Torah was the principle supplier for the Chabad House food pantry. During our High Holiday campaign and throughout the year, we collect more food than all of the other Jewish congregations combined for the JFS food pantry,” he reported. As one of the congregation’s going away gifts to the rabbi, it collected 250 bags of food and personal care items for the pantry, 10 bags for every year he’s been the pulpit rabbi

He patterned his commitment to social justice after the careers of two other rabbis in the Reform movement — Abe Schusterman, his rabbi at Har Sinai Congregation in Baltimore, and Eugene Lipman. Both of those rabbis saw Rabbi Samuel S. Mayerberg as a model for social justice. Coincidentally Rabbi Mayerberg served B’nai Jehudah (Rabbi Levin’s first pulpit in Kansas City) for many years, but passed away long before Rabbi Levin arrived here.

Rabbi Levin said the congregation has been “extremely kind” as they’ve gone about crafting his new role. When he begins using the title of founding rabbi on July 1, he expects to work for Beth Torah between 10 to 15 hours, 40 to 44 weeks during the year. He will continue teaching his Torah study class, something he’s done every Shabbat for the past 38 years.

“Even when I’m on vacation I try to find a place to teach.”

He will provide pastoral care and participate in some lifecycle events including officiating at three weddings already on the books.

“I’ve told Rabbi Rick Shapiro (Beth Torah’s interim rabbi who takes over for two years beginning July 1) I will take orders from him,” said Rabbi Levin, noting he may have some role in upcoming High Holiday services. But he won’t officiate any Bar or Bat Mitzvahs.

Over the last few years Rabbi Levin has become more interested in pastoral care. 

“I’ve been concentrating more on the pain a person feels inside rather than societal pain,” he said. “I hope to work more with people who are facing their mortality.”

He has been studying pastoral care at Research Medical Center and will continue studying with local Jewish Community Chaplain Jonathan Rudnick.

On top of his teaching — which he hopes to devote even more time to — he also would like to write a book.

“I’d like to adapt my doctoral dissertation about prayer,” he said. “It will be something that people in the pews can read and understand, something the average Jew will be able to enjoy and appreciate.”

Rabbi Levin and Kacy also plan to travel more.

“Including my son’s graduation (that took place earlier this month), we have nine trips on the calendar. Friends have asked if we can come to this or that and I’m now able to say yes.”

Those trips, and more time to babysit his granddaughter, may give the rabbi a chance to dust off his camera. An amateur photographer, he was given Photoshop as a gift last year and is looking forward to finally learning how to use it. 

Over the years he’s heard many stories about how he’s impacted the lives of this person or that person. He’s officiated at hundreds of lifecycle events — baby namings, weddings, Bar/Bat Mitzvahs, confirmations, funerals. No matter what it was, he is gratified he was able to participate and make a difference.

“It is just such a privilege to be a part of people’s lives.”

 

Congregational celebration

As Rabbi Mark Levin prepares to retire from his duties as pulpit rabbi at the end of June, Congregation Beth Torah plans to honor him, culminate its year of scribing a new Torah for the congregation and cap off its 25th anniversary year with a celebration at 4 p.m. Sunday, June 1. As part of the celebration honoring Rabbi Levin, Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, Ph.D., author and professor at Hebrew Union College, will speak and Ben Sayevich from Park University will perform a musical piece.

The community is invited to join in this celebration. RSVP through the Beth Torah website, www.beth-torah.org