Rabbi Adam Lavitt is all about spiritual wellness, social justice


As part of Jewish Rhode Island’s ongoing effort to introduce community leaders, Rabbi Adam Lavitt agreed to answer a few questions.

Favorite Jewish food?

I’d have to say it’s my grandmother’s brisket. It’s so tender — probably because she makes it with love. I don’t eat brisket a lot, but when I have it, it’s total bliss. My grandmother recently turned 90. I saw her when she flew out from Phoenix to visit the family in Chicago. She traveled to see her first great-grandchild, my sister’s newborn daughter. It was her first solo trip after my grandfather’s death. 

Favorite Jewish holiday?

Holidays are a time to notice how you’ve evolved and grown. I enjoy Passover. We are commanded to make the Passover story our own and find something in our experience to connect to our ancestors. Moving from a narrow place into a space of freedom is a powerful story to have at our fingertips.

Growing up, we’d have Passover with my mother’s parents. They’re gone now, but the memories remain. In particular, I recall how my grandfather, a Holocaust survivor who hated rituals, would rebel during the 10 plagues. Instead of putting the wine drops onto his plate, he’d splash the wine onto the white tablecloth. My mother always had the salt ready. 

Favorite Jewish song?

I don’t have a particular song in mind, but I’m inspired by the new Jewish music, especially by a past teacher of mine, Joey Wisenberg, who teaches at Hadar, a Yeshiva in New York City. His nigunim — wordless liturgical melodies for prayer — and his teachings on leading intimate communal singing are renewing Jewish song as a spiritual practice. He focuses on nusach — traditional musical settings, or modes, that correspond to particular times of year and day, rooting you. For instance, the music you hear during the morning Shabbat service is different from the music you hear during the evening service.

I like that you don’t have to be a musician to empower Jewish communities to come together and sing. The service has become so performative lately — people feel they can’t sing along. I’m glad that folk singing is coming back; it allows the community to bang on the table and sing together.

Favorite Jewish celebrities?

I love Ilana Glazer [Broad City co-creator, actress, comedian and writer]. My husband and I got VIP tickets to see her on tour. She was doing a show with Phoebe Robinson [actress, comedian and writer] in Boston. During the meet-and-greet, we wanted to stand out to them. I thought, how could we be memorable? So I told her that we are rabbis who are married to each other. We ended up not only chatting, but also taking selfies with Ilana and Phoebe on our backs. I love that Ilana is funny and totally fearless!

Favorite Israeli cities?

I lived in Jerusalem for a year and in Tel Aviv for a semester. It was interesting to spend some time in each of those cities and experience how polarized Israeli society is. As a queer person studying to become a rabbi, I felt I didn’t totally belong in Jerusalem. As a religious person, I felt I didn’t totally belong in Tel Aviv.

I was at the 2005 pride march and witnessed the stabbing. Seeing someone be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance made me feel scared. I heard religious people say, you don’t belong — get out of here! Even though Jerusalem has great, accepting organizations and communities, I never recovered.

I thought studying in Tel Aviv’s secular Yeshiva would be easier. I studied Song of Songs with artists who had no interest in religion, using the music as an inspiration for art, not as religious observance. While I felt safe as a queer person, I would have to defend myself to people who’d be flummoxed by the fact that I was studying to be a rabbi. Israel’s image of the rabbi is one of an Orthodox person. Liberal Judaism isn’t thriving there, as it is in America.

Favorite Hebrew word and why?

I like the word emunah, which means trust or faith. In my religious practice, I’m trying to cultivate trust in something bigger than I see in the headlines. There is something greater than all of us.

Favorite Yiddish word?

I wish I knew Yiddish. At Hebrew Senior Life, in Boston, I work with folks who spoke Yiddish all their lives. They always assume I understand what they’re saying. One word I really like is chutzpah [audacity]. I love people who have it, and I wish I had more of it.

Favorite part of being Jewish
and being a rabbi?

For me, it’s connecting with a really old way of inhabiting time. Judaism really grounds me in the seasons and the way time unfolds. I love becoming a Jewish spiritual and religious leader. Right now, I work with rabbinical students as part of a team of spiritual directors. I listen for the way that a secret emerges in people’s lives, the way God may be calling people to become what they’re becoming.

I help them hear themselves into life. I call it ‘therapy with God.’ Judaism has such wisdom about how to build community and bring people together, as well as how to witness and support each other as we evolve, grow and go through different stages in life.

Greatest piece of advice someone has given you, and who gave it to you?

It’s telling that I keep forgetting this quote. Sheila Peltz Weinberg, a fellow spiritual director from Philadelphia, told me to ‘practice love and kindness toward myself.’ It’s really hard to do because I think about everyone else first.

Right now, I’m leaving on a silent retreat with Insight Meditation Society [a nonprofit organization for the study of Buddhism, in Barre, Massachusetts] to give myself the gift of time. I spend a lot of my life rushing around. I want to notice the little things — how it feels to drink tea, how the gravel sounds under my feet. I am doing a lot of that on behalf of other people.

If you could have dinner with anyone, who would you invite and why?

I’d love to have dinner with Adrienne Maree Brown, author of ‘Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds.’ I’ve been listening to her podcast, ‘How to Survive the End of the World,’ and really enjoy it. We, as a species, have faced a lot of world endings at different times. She discusses what skills we need to be resilient in the face of deep change and uncertainty. Brown looks at the way all systems in the natural world are interdependent as a model for what we could be doing socially. I like that she sees interconnectedness as a source of strength. She’s speaking my language.

IRINA HAWKINS is a writer who lives in Providence.

Q&A, Lavitt