Q & A with Rabbi Lev Friedman


In advance of Rabbi Lev Friedman’s visit with us at Yom Kippur, we asked him to share a bit of his story with us.

Can you tell us about your background, where you grew up, etc.?

I grew up in Jericho, NY, on Long Island. My family belonged to the conservative synagogue in Westbury and then to the reform congregation in Syosset, where I became a bar mitzvah. My background was generally secular with a deep pride for and emphasis on Jewish culture and history.

In my early 20s, I was a youth leader at a local synagogue. At Hofstra University, I was involved with the Hebrew Cultural Society , where we learned Israeli dancing, brought in speakers on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, socialized, etc. Post college, I spent six months in Israel learning Modern Hebrew and volunteering on Kibbutz Gal-On.

I met Rabbi Zelman Schachter-Shalomi, z”l, in 1978. He opened my eyes to the beauty and depth of our spiritual traditions. Thanks to him I began learning with teachers he recommended. Sometime in the early 1980s, a congregation of like-minded seekers began to form around my leadership. Under Reb Zalman’s tutelage, I became the spiritual leader of the group, which was then and is to this day known as B’nai Or of Boston. I led the community from 1980 until 1996 and learned practical rabbinics on the job—leading Shabbat and holiday services, officiating at all life-cycle ceremonies, and teaching. To date I’ve married over 60 couples.

I understand that you owned a business selling Judaica for many years. How did you first become interested in Judaica?

In the 1970s through the mid 1980s, I made my living as a folk singer and guitar and songwriting teacher. When our first daughter was born, I decided it was time to concentrate on a more lucrative career. I did a lot of networking, wanting to synthesize my life under a Jewish umbrella. I was leading the congregation part-time and wanted to do something that would not conflict with that.

A friendly acquaintance of mine had opened Kolbo Fine Judaic Arts & Handcrafts about five years earlier. I liked the business and the idea of hiddur mitzvah, the beautification of a mitzvah, which is what Kolbo is all about. I became the sole owner in 1997, changed the name to Kolbo Fine Judaica, and greatly expanded the size of the store and the breadth of the products. I sold the business seven years ago, in July 2011.

Can you share any reflections on this part of your professional life?

My favorite aspect of owning Kolbo was my interactions with customers. Kolbo was the only Jewish connection for many of them. Being behind the counter was sometimes like having a pulpit. People opened up to me and it often felt like I had another congregation I secretly called Anshei Kolbo (People of Kolbo). If a customer came in who was going through a rough patch, and I had the time, I would invite him or her into my office. A fair amount of openhearted listening and pastoral counseling went on in there, even though I would not have called it that at the time. I also loved the connection with local artists, as well as with many different Israeli artists, which gave me the opportunity to speak a little Hebrew.

Tell us about your journey to rabbinical school. When and why did you decide to follow this path?

My journey to rabbinical school was traveled on a “long and winding road.” When I first began leading the B’nai Or community, I considered going to rabbinical school. However, Joyce and I had already established ourselves in the Boston area and it would have meant uprooting our family and leaving B’nai Or. Since I was already leading a congregation and learning practical rabbinics on the job, I decided it wasn’t necessary.

Reb Zalman ordained me as a “rabbinic deputy,” chazzan (cantor), and Maggid (storyteller). At the time that was sufficient for me. I was intimately involved with a community, officiating at all life-cycle events, leading services, teaching, empowering others to lead, etc.

When my business partner left at the end of 1996, I had to give something up since being the sole owner of Kolbo was extremely demanding. Obviously, I was not going to give up my family or our main source of income. For a number of years, I assisted B’nai Or during the High Holidays. Twenty-seven years after starting at Kolbo, I sold it. This was in July 2011. I gave myself a year to figure out what would be next.

The “ah ha” moment came when I went to Jerusalem to visit our eldest daughter, Shoshana, who was in her third year of rabbinical school (in Rabbi David’s cohort by the way). I was studying with her and her hevruta (study partner) in the Beit Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva when a light bulb went off. I was enjoying the learning so much that both Shoshana and I had the idea at the exact same time that I should try the pre-rabbinic year (Mekorot) at Hebrew College Rabbinical School. I was free to do so and feel so blessed that I followed that intuitive moment. Six years of intensive study was exactly what I needed to fill in the gaps in my learning. I received Rabbinic ordination precisely 40 years after my initial meeting with my Rebbe, Reb Zalman, z”l.

What role does music play in your life?

I picked up the guitar when I was five years old. I wanted to be the next Elvis Presley. When that didn’t work out, I went to kindergarten. Over the decades I’ve been a folk and blues singer and songwriter. I performed in many venues throughout New England earlier in my life.

Music was central in our family. As our daughters learned to play guitar, fiddle, cello, and banjo, we would play together at home and sometimes perform together. We sang constantly and made up songs for mundane or special occasions. Music is fundamental to my life. It centers and grounds me and is one way that I best communicate with myself, others, and God.

What is your connection to Vermont?

We found our way to the Northeast Kingdom in 1992 with our three small children and fell in love with it. With the exception of one or two seasons, we spend at least three weeks there every summer. We feel nourished and refreshed physically and spiritually by being in the mountains and near the lake in Greensboro. It is truly a retreat for our growing family and us. I often sit out on the front porch and play my guitar while looking out at a 180-degree view of Caspian Lake and the mountains behind it. When our daughters and sons-in-law come to visit, these solo delights sometimes turn into a spontaneous jam session.

What draws you to being at JCOGS for Yom Kippur?

Rabbi David and I have a strong connection and friendship from our shared years at Hebrew College. We already know that we work and harmonize well together on many levels. When he invited me to assist him on Yom Kippur, I eagerly accepted. I love the warmth of the JCOGS community and look forward to a deep spiritual immersion with all of you.

As you anticipate the High Holy Days, what do you most look forward to?

I most look forward to celebrating our blessings and how we want to rewrite our own script for the coming year. I love the collective davennen and singing. And I most look forward to doing this in community.

I look forward to the contemplation of what has been barren in our lives? What awaits birthing? Where have we done well and where do we need improvement? Each year our tradition reminds us that we have the opportunity to get it right. It also forcefully reminds us that time is passing and we have to face our mortality. What script will we write for ourselves for the coming year?

I think of Yom Kippur as one long pause, one long blessing before the meal of the New Year. I see it as a joyous day. Even though we are ending a period of deep personal reflection and hopefully making teshuvah (repentance, turning ourselves around), I see the entire period as a time to wipe our inner slate clean, get clear with God, and make amends with each other. This is absolutely wonderful.