James Levinson’s Memories

America’s First Interfaith Jewish/Muslim Service

In the wake of the horrific situation facing Muslims following 9/11, BAJC and the School for International Training organized at WVMH what turned out to be the first interfaith Jewish/Muslim worship service in America. A large group of Jews and Muslims gathered to offer both traditional prayers and prayers for reconciliation. A Muslim Imam chanted the Hebrew “Sh’ma Yisrael”, and Jim chanted the Fateha, the opening of the Koran. One Muslim woman, a long-time resident of Brattleboro, said at the end of the service and with tears in her eyes, “I never thought I would live to see this day”.

Abraham’s Family Reunion

In the same spirit, congregations of different faiths organized at WVMH what came to be called “Abraham’s Family Reunion”, a gathering of the original Abrahamic religions: Judaism, Christianity and Islam. The following words of introduction and welcome were offered: “Once we were closely associated, as descendants of Abraham. Since then, we have grown apart, and misunderstandings have arisen. The time has come for a reunion of our peoples”.

Our Interfaith Music Service

This was followed, several months later, by a service of music from the world’s major religions. The service was filled with choral music, solo vocal music and instrumental music stemming from or associated with these religions.

An Interfaith Memorial Service Remembering the Jewish, Christian and Muslim victims of Israel’s invasion of Lebanon

Jews, Christians and Muslims in the Brattleboro area were deeply saddened by this invasion and the killing which ensued. Accordingly, we collected all the names we could gather of Jewish, Christian and Muslim persons killed during the invasion, read their names, and offered memorial prayers honoring their traditions at WVMH. One out-of-town visitor to the service wrote to the Reformer, “Until attending this service, I was undecided about whether to move to Brattleboro. After witnessing and participating in this service, my decision became clear. I’m coming to live here.”

The Saddest Funeral

Jim had the sad responsibility of officiating many funerals at WVMH. The saddest was the funeral of Jesse Lopata, a beautiful, gentle and sensitive 19 year-old boy who was part of the synagogue’s youth group. Jesse died of leukemia. Jim and his wife Louise will be buried next to him in the Marlboro cemetery.

At the funeral, Jim spoke about his last conversation with Jesse in his hospital room. 

“Jesse began to weep as he spoke about all of you – you, the dear dear loved ones he would be leaving, and the pain you would experience. Jesse was right. I have never before seen an outpouring of love and affection and tears and heartfelt prayer that I’ve seen manifested in this community from people whose lives he touched so profoundly.”

Another Memorable Funeral

Marty Jezer had also become a legend in Brattleboro, a champion to fellow human beings with speech impediments, an inspiration to us all through his Reformer editorials. Marty loved jazz, and so his funeral at WVMH was filled with jazz, much of it organized and performed by Eugene Uman. The jazz was continued by a Dixieland band which played funereal music as Marty’s coffin was carried to the cemetery, and then “The Saints Go Marching In” as we departed the cemetery.

The Funniest Wedding

A couple planning their wedding at WVMH faced a dilemma and approached the rabbi. “We don’t know what to do. We’ve invited two groups of guests to the wedding. Group A is invited to stay for lunch after the ceremony, but Group B is only invited to the ceremony. What can we do?

The rabbi’s suggestion: “Have the receiving line outside at the top of the steps near the parking lot.” When a Group B person goes through the line, they can be given a gentle push toward the parked cars”.

Singing in the choir with Ede Thomas, Tom Baehr, Eva Greene and other friends at All Souls services

Jim was always warmly welcomed, and it was, invariably, a joy to sing beautiful music with such dear people.

Appreciating the Art Gallery

Jim loved to show off the All Souls Art Gallery to congregants and other friends visiting WVMH. His favorite exhibits included the unusual black-on-white cut-out silhouette images created by Stuart Copans.

Leading BAJC Services at WVMH

For nine years, Jim led BAJC Jewish worship services at WVMH. Accommodation was made to permit the placement of an ark with the Torah scrolls on the “bimah” in front of the congregation.

Leading All Souls Services at WVMH

I was frequently invited to lead services at All Souls, and they always were beautiful, memorable experiences. One of my favorites was the one where, as part of sermon time, individuals in the congregation were invited to speak about “random acts of kindness” they had recently received, offered or witnessed.

A Last Funny Story

BAJC, together with the Salaam Shalom program organized in 2003 what was likely the first interfaith Jewish Muslim service in America. (An Imam from Senegal led the Sh’ma, Jim chanted the beginning of the Koran, and lots more.)

In order to perform this service, however, we had to turn the chairs so they would face East (Jerusalem and Mecca)

And in the course of turning the chairs, we scratched the floor….and the emails began to fly.

When Jim saw them he replied quickly: “Mea Culpa – What do I have to do? What’s the U-U equivalent of a Hail Mary”

The emails then started getting humorous, and wonderful Marianne Rigatti, then the Administrator of All Souls informed Jim that if he provided her with a box of home-made chocolate chip cookies, all would be well.

Jim replied that he taught at the Tufts University School of Nutrition which believes in “the glycemic index”. And, therefore, the cookies will have to be made with whole wheat flour, no sugar, and carob chips instead of chocolate.

Marianne’s response: “The day you give me a box of home-made chocolate chip cookies made with whole wheat flour, no sugar and carob chips instead of chocolate….is the day your lease is terminated. 

If you have a memory about the West Village Meeting House that you would like to share, please tell us about it in the “Reply” section below.

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