A conversation with Rabbi John Levi

February 16, 2018 by Michael Kuttner
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Rabbi John Levi, Emeritus Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel in Melbourne, has been in Israel with his wife, Robyn, for the last six months.

Rabbi John Levi

Prior to returning down under, he was hosted by J-Wire’s Israel correspondent, Michael Kuttner and his wife, Margaret, at their home in Efrat, Gush Etzion. Visiting this historically Jewish area for the first time he was clearly impressed by the enormity of the development taking place.

Having served the Australian Jewish community in many capacities for over 40 years (37 years as Rabbi of Temple Beth Israel) and establishing King David Jewish Day School, his views on Jewish life in Australia and Israel are well worth reading. As a regular visitor to Israel, many times with interfaith groups, Rabbi Levi has witnessed enormous changes.

JW: What have you been doing during these last six months?

JL: We have been “on the go”. The myriad of cultural attractions is overwhelming and will culminate in our attending a performance of the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra before we return to Australia. In addition there have been the museums and numerous lectures on a variety of topics, becoming immersed in the news as it breaks by reading the papers and watching TV and listening to the radio. Then there are the marvelous selections of books on all Jewish topics. I have been busy purchasing many of them and sending them back to Melbourne.

In addition of course I have involved myself with four different congregations in Jerusalem, participating and sampling their varied activities. Seeing parts of this amazing country has also been something we have done, an exhausting but very worthwhile experience.

JW: What has been most challenging?

JL: Without a doubt shopping and listening to lectures in Hebrew.

JW: What have been your observations of life here?

JL: The fantastic spirit and confidence which pervades Israeli society these days. Back in the 1950’s there was food rationing. Today, Israel is unrecognizable and there is no comparison. What has been achieved despite almost insurmountable obstacles in 70 years is a miracle. When I see on a Sunday morning hundreds of teenagers in their uniforms gathering at the Jerusalem Central Bus Station to return to their bases, all of them exuding a sense of purpose and responsibility, I am moved. These youngsters are so much more mature than their peers in other countries and moreover they have a purpose in life.

JW: Any thoughts on the tensions in Israeli society?

JL: All families have dissidents and with Jews coming from so many ethnicities and parts of the world it is inevitable that there will be differences. However like in all good families these will be overcome in due course. Israel is one big Jewish family and this is very noticeable.

JW: What stands out during your stay in Jerusalem?

JL: The number of babies and children!! They are everywhere. In Europe you hardly see them. Here there are prams and strollers galore and one sees young children walking by themselves without fear. What a contrast to most parts of the world.

JW: Any other thoughts on developments in Israel?

JL: Well, first of all Israel gets things done. The amount of infrastructure work going on here with highways, high speed rail and building generally is spectacular. In Australia we first have to establish committees and things take much longer. Israel is a dynamic democracy. This is reflected in the robust debates which permeate all sectors of society from the Knesset to the local level.

JW: You have been a founding member of the Council of Christians & Jews. Are you still involved with interfaith activities?

JL: Yes. There is still an important challenge to keep the lines of communication open to the various Churches. Some are more receptive to honest dialogue than others but with Israel delegitimisation on the rise this work is more vital than ever.

JW: How do you see the future of Australian Jewry?

JL: I am not pessimistic. The Jewish Day Schools are an important tool in keeping the next generation Jewishly involved although the increasingly high costs are having a deterrent effect for many families. We are fortunate in that we have generous benefactors who help. I believe we can avoid the attrition which is afflicting American Jewry.

JW: Australian Jews support Israel in great numbers and also visit here.

JL: This is certainly a factor. I believe that the youngsters who have made Aliyah have realized a dream and will contribute much to Israeli society while at the same time safeguarding their Jewish future. I feel very positive that despite everything the outlook is positive for the Jewish State.

JW: Will you be coming back?

JL: No doubt about it. At 83 it is becoming more challenging to travel but all things being equal – Im yirtze Hashem – God willing – we shall return.


One Response to “A conversation with Rabbi John Levi”
  1. Hilary Rubinstein says:

    A lovely interview, with an upbeat note throughout. A thorough pleasure to read.

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