Growing up in Los Angeles’ hot Valley in a secular household, Peter Levi never dreamed he would become a rabbi.
But that was before rediscovering his heritage while teaching at a New England boarding school. After sharing a Shabbat, or Sabbath, dinner with a co-worker and students, Levi began exploring his Jewish roots.
“My colleague and I were both mathematics teachers and he would say to me, ‘Peter, you’re Jewish, you should do Jewish things.’ ”
That nudge set off a passion that would eventually bring Levi to lead 700 families at Aliso Viejo's , the largest synagogue in OC and one of just a handful nationwide to be affiliated with both the Reform and Conservative movements of Judaism.
"This synagogue is really on the cutting edge of what it means to be a Jew in today’s world," said Levi, a married father of four who joined the temple's leadership team in 2006. “One of the beautiful things about Judaism is that it’s progressive and not fixed and static. It’s always reinvented itself.”
Levi has reinvented himself as well. After studying math and philosophy at Yale University and teaching high school, he began working on a PhD in philsophy at UC Santa Barbara. But the ministry beckoned. He eventually dropped out to attend the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, which is dedicated to the principles of Reform Judaism, becoming ordained in 1998.
“I ask why we do what we do: Is it meaningful and purposeful? I don’t have a default to fall back on because I grew up with a secular Jewish identity," he said. "I became my own version of a religious fanatic on the very progressive end of religion.”
At Temple Beth El, Levi’s main focus is celebrating Shabbat and keeping the sanctity of that principle.
“We decided to put the sabbath day at the center of who we are as a community,” said Levi. “While most synagogues offer Sunday school, we say no. We should come together on Jewish holy time, which is the Sabbath, on Friday night and Saturday.”
Levi’s programs have earned the synagogue national recognition, including a Legace Heritage Innovation Project grant to pilot a Shabbat-based educational program.
"We then took the bold step of not just piloting a program but making it the norm... a radical and revolutionary turn but one we felt important for healthy Jewish identity formation," he said.
Levi added: “It’s easy to find holiness at your wedding, or when you’re having a baby, but hard to find in the mundane goings and comings of life. That was a significant and creative change we’ve embraced.”
Temple Beth El’s congregation also works with nonprofit programs such as South Orange County Outreach, the Illumination Foundation and Surfrider Foundation.
“Across the board people are involved,” said Levi.
To learn more about Temple Beth El of South Orange County, visit www.templebethelsoc.org.