Rabbi Paul H. Levenson ‘53 and Rabbi Cheryl Asarkof Jacobs ‘91 are, respectively, the first Hobart and the first William Smith graduates to enter the rabbinate, and while their journeys differ, their rabbinical careers have strong roots at HWS.
Growing up on Long Island, in Lawrence, N.Y., Levenson was, as he says, “actively Jewish” at Temple Israel, as were his parents. His mother was an officer in the temple’s Sisterhood. His father was on the temple board; served as treasurer, chair of the religious school and music committees.
Levenson, however, did not decide to become a rabbi until he came to Geneva.
“One of my classmates with a Jewish name told me that he was going to officially become an Episcopalian,” Levenson says. “I was shocked. I never met anyone who had a Jewish name who was going to get baptized as a Christian of any kind. I spoke to him and he said he didn’t know anything about being Jewish.”
It was that experience that made Levenson “want to teach Jewish kids about being Jewish,” he says. “I’d had such a good experience, myself, that I wanted to share that.”
For Jacobs, who grew up in Boston, “the rabbinate was never a thought in my mind. I come from a family of dentists and I really thought that was where my journey would take me.”
When she arrived at HWS, Jacobs enrolled in as many science courses as she could, but “found that I was not fit to be a scientist or medical professional,” she says. But thanks to the interdisciplinary nature of the HWS curriculum, she found herself in religion courses taught by Professors of Religious Studies Richard “Doc” Heaton and Michael Dobkowski. She went on to earn a B.A. in religious studies with a minor in sociology, and planning to teach religious studies at the university level, Jacobs was admitted to the Divinity School at Yale University, where she was the only Jewish person enrolled.
“It made for a unique dynamic,” she says. “I found myself having to explain and teach Judaism — and I think that enlightened me to the fact that maybe I didn’t know as much about my religion as I thought I did.”
When Levenson graduated from Hobart, he attended Hebrew Union College (Reform) in Cincinnati, before traveling to study in Israel.
“In Israel I studied full time, every morning and many afternoons in a Yeshiva, an Orthodox day school for high school kids, who knew lots more than I did,” he says.
After a year studying at Yeshiva Kol Torah and Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Levenson completed his rabbinic education at Hebrew Union in New York City, which had joined with the Jewish Institute of Religion.
Jacobs, after she earned a master of arts in religion from Yale, also went to New York, enrolling at the Jewish Theological Seminary (Conservative) at the suggestion of her master’s adviser, renowned New Testament scholar Brevard Childs. At the JTS, Childs told her, Jacobs could study toward a Ph.D. and also be ordained as a Conservative Rabbi.
“I scoffed at the rabbi suggestion,” Jacobs says, “but I moved to New York City and began my studies at JTS.”
The move to New York is what changed things for Jacobs: “The school is on the edge of Harlem in an area called Morningside Heights. Although it is a safe area, right next to Columbia, I had never seen people sleeping on the streets — or such poverty in my sheltered life in Boston, Geneva, or New Haven.”
It was then Jacobs decided she wanted to become a rabbi, “to help those with no voice.”
“It didn’t matter if they were Jewish or not — what mattered is that they were human beings who needed someone on their side,” she says. “My seven years in New York City were dedicated to helping those who were homeless, helpless, sick and in need of support.”
Levenson taught Jewish Studies for 10 years at Rockhurst College, a Catholic school in Kansas City, Mo. He later created many Jewish Studies courses and taught them as well when he served as Hillel Director at Northeastern University. He was a congregational rabbi for his other 30 years, plus 20 as a hospital chaplain including his latest, retirement years.
“In hospitals,” Levenson says, “Jewish patients need someone who understands their ‘Jewish culture’ far beyond a prayer to God for healing. Many American Jews, as well as those in Israel, came from Eastern Europe where Stalin and others Communists forbade any overt expression of Jewish religious life. Consequently they knew nothing or little of Jewish religious practices.” This was true, Levenson recalls, of the father of his friend whom he met at HWS back in the early 1950s.
Levenson is now rabbi emeritus at Temple Chayai Shalom in Easton, Mass., in addition to his continuing as Jewish chaplain in two of Boston’s biggest hospitals, caring for infirmed and dying persons, Jews and non-Jews alike.
His involvement in the community has grown and developed over the years, from a member of research committees for hospitals and medical schools, to his activism for fair housing practices, the advancement of the state of Israel and civil rights. In the 1960s, Levenson took part in civil rights demonstrations and was present at the National Mall to hear Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. In the late 1980s, he marched on Washington with Elie Wiesel and Natan Sharansky and 250,000 other people in support of the rights of Soviet Jews to emigrate from their autocratic country.
Of service to others, Levenson says, “As you can tell from my brief ‘bio,’ I took up challenges and went wherever my Rabbinic colleagues and I were needed.”
Jacobs, as a student at the JTS, served as student chaplain for an HIV/AIDS organization, where “on any given night, we’d have 250 people from the street, right out of jail, in all stages of illness. The very first time a homeless man gave me a huge hug and said to me, ‘You are the first religious person that hasn’t judged us for what we have — but for what we are inside.’ I was hooked.”
But her favorite “job,” Jacobs says, “was and is as a volunteer for the Broward Sheriff’s Office where I go in and meet with the Jewish inmates in all of our area jails.”
Twelve years ago, Jacobs and her family moved to Florida, for her husband Andrew’s pulpit (he is also a rabbi). In Florida, Jacobs worked seven years for a synagogue and established the Jewish Healing Center, an organization dedicated to providing chaplaincy/rabbinic services to those who did not belong to a congregation in the area.
“For years we have struggled with the issue of ‘membership’ in our community — and I think that it’s time to redefine what it means to be a ‘member,'” Jacobs says. “Judaism is not a country club. Over the years, you learn that no matter what you are professionally, you have to learn to follow your heart. My heart is dedicated to making sure that anyone who wants access and a connection to Judaism and community is able to have it.”
For Levenson, it’s the tradition of Judaism that provides that connection to the community. He and his wife, who died this year, and their four children and five grandchildren have always been very active in the overall Jewish community wherever they lived.
“I’m very traditional in my outlook on life, and in every other way, because I know what was done in times past,” Levenson says, and has tried to reincorporate traditional aspects of the Jewish experience into his teachings and into his passion for songwriting (see www.rablev.com).
“The traditional Sabbath, lighting of the Shabbat candles, going to synagogue Friday night — in my own congregation we did even more than that,” he says. “We sang many traditional songs and Israeli songs. Why? Because they’re a fun, important, memorable, and authentic part of the ongoing, existential Jewish experience.”