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Rabbi Melanie Levav of PJ Library New York: For those who have the ability to be in human contact with others, giving and getting love can be essential in healing the pain of this crisis

Spend more time on love. One of my kids has had a particularly rough time with “Zoom school.” I figured out that the days on which I spent more time offering hugs, staying connected physically, cuddling together reading all of our PJ Library books, taking more breaks from work to check in and offer affirmation […]

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Spend more time on love. One of my kids has had a particularly rough time with “Zoom school.” I figured out that the days on which I spent more time offering hugs, staying connected physically, cuddling together reading all of our PJ Library books, taking more breaks from work to check in and offer affirmation and validation — those were the days that were a little less hard. Kids, strike that, we all need to feel love, and that’s something that is much harder to feel through a screen. For those who have the ability to be in human contact with others, giving and getting love can be essential in healing the pain of this crisis, the grief from all of the loss — the loss of life as we knew it, and the literal loss of life.


I had the pleasure of interviewing Rabbi Melanie Levav. Rabbi Melanie Levav is the Director of PJ Library New York, a program of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, where she leads a New York-based team charged with growing PJ Library in New York, bringing the gift of high-quality, free children’s books into the homes of families of all Jewish backgrounds, including those of mixed faith, in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester. Previously, Melanie served as the Assistant Executive Director, Financial Resource Development, and Director of Pastoral Care at the Edith and Carl Marks Jewish Community House of Bensonhurst, a JCC serving the Russian-speaking Jewish community in Brooklyn, New York. Melanie has served as a consultant to the Natan Fund and Ikar, collaborating on projects to expand conversations in the Jewish community about death and dying, including deathoverdinner-jewishedition.org. She has also worked for the Jewish Community Centers Association, American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, and UJA-Federation of New York, in the areas of Jewish education, volunteer management, and fundraising. Melanie was ordained as a rabbi ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary as a Wexner Graduate Fellow, is a board-certified chaplain, and a licensed social worker.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Rabbi Levav! Before we dig in, our readers would like to get to know you. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, and attended public school in New York through college. My parents were both in helping professions and taught me from an early age to both question authority and to help those in need, which led me to my first graduate degree, in social work.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

As the parent of school-aged children, I’ve gotten to read a lot of children’s books in recent years. One that’s had a lasting impact on me is a book called The Only One Club, which I first encountered when my children received it in the mail as a gift from PJ Library. In the book, children in school are making Christmas decorations, and the one Jewish student in the class is permitted to make Hanukkah decorations. The lesson of the book is that while each person may feel alone in one way, everyone is the only one in other ways. The book resonated with me as a parent raising children in a 2-mom family, most especially as our younger child has felt the impact of being the only one with 2 moms in her classes at school, and in her bunk at camp. The book has helped me as a parent to support my children in recognizing the ways in which they are not alone even when they may feel otherwise.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

“Teach us to number our days” is a favorite quote of mine. It comes from the Book of Psalms. I took a mid-life detour to rabbinical school, graduating at the age of 44, with a keen interest on helping others to talk more openly about how we want to live as we recognize that our time on this earth is finite. This quote helps me remember to be grateful for each day we’re given, as tomorrow is never guaranteed. And the rest of the sentence in that quote is equally powerful, “Teach us to number our days… so that we may gain a heart of wisdom.” By slowing down to mark the passage of time, we can strive to attain a certain kind of wisdom — not just book smarts, but the depth of knowing something in our hearts. That’s been a huge life lesson for me, especially as a New Yorker who is now marking the days my family and I are living in isolation up in our 10th floor high rise apartment in the city.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I learned from my teacher Marty Linksy that leadership is disappointing people at a rate they can absorb. Being the one willing to take the first step in a new direction means that inevitably, you will disappoint some people. Taking on the role of leading PJ Library in New York, a program that serves nearly 40,000 children in New York City, Long Island, and Westchester, I knew that inevitably, any forward movement we could achieve would leave some people disappointed, and yet, we’re doing incredible work and achieving new successes with the new directions we’ve pursued… in particular, empowering parents to take the lead in engaging other families in their neighborhood, outside of traditional organizational structures.

In life we come across many people, some who inspire us, some who change us and some who make us better people. Is there a person or people who have helped you get to where you are today? Can you share a story?

There are so, so many people I can think of… at each stage in my career, I’ve sought out mentors to help guide me. Some have been formal mentors, some informal, but all have helped me to be reflective in my work, to take a look at who I am in that role, and to clarify who I want to be as I continue to grow and learn. During rabbinical school, I spent a significant amount of time training as a chaplain. One summer, I worked full time as a chaplain intern in a cancer hospital. Assigned to the pediatrics floor during part of that summer, I visited repeatedly with a father who was accompanying his critically ill infant through treatment. He and I came from different worlds; his social norms meant he wouldn’t even look me in the eye as we spoke. I was still gaining confidence in expressing myself in an authoritative way as a chaplain, and it was my supervisor, an Orthodox rabbi, who helped me to see that I was the person who might help this father to see a different way of accepting help, to accept help from someone so very different than he, in trying to cope with his baby’s illness. In recognizing the differences that kept us apart in life outside that hospital, I learned to appreciate the incredible similarities we possess when experiencing a crisis of faith, no matter what our faith.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a series of unprecedented crises. So many of us see the news and ask how we can help. We’d love to talk about the steps that each of us can take to help heal our country, in our own way. Which particular crisis would you like to discuss with us today? Why does that resonate with you so much?

The COVID-19 crisis has knocked me off my feet, literally. Not only do I live in New York City, where we faced this crisis earlier than other parts of the country, but I’m in a high risk group, I’m married to someone in a different high risk group, and one of our children is in yet another high risk group. We’ve been quite isolated since early March and are reluctant to begin loosening the standards we’ve adopted in an effort to keep our family healthy and safe even as things are starting to reopen in our area. What resonates with me is that this crisis is not limited to a specific area or type of people — it’s a crisis that has affected the entire world.

This is likely a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

I think we’ve arrived at the place we are in the US because of a leadership challenge. There are so many ways that this is being handled by various leaders in our country; it is hard to imagine that we won’t see a resurgence that will affect us all.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience either working on this cause or your experience being impacted by it? Can you share a story with us?

Early on, what was happening in New York enabled PJ Library to create resources for parents who were in quarantine with their children, which we were then able to adapt and expand as the rest of the country and the world went into isolation in rapid succession. New Rochelle, a town in Westchester County, just north of New York City, was an epicenter early on in this crisis, with a significant number of cases emerging in the Jewish community. Working with our partners at UJA-Federation of New York and the Foundation for Jewish Camp, PJ Library quickly put up resources on our website and on social media to support parents who were now stuck at home with their children.

As the weeks went on, PJ Library was also invited by our partners at the Jewish Education Project and the Jewish Federations of North America to think together about how to offer support to educators and parents who were facing significant losses and deaths in their communities for the first time on such a scale, and without access to any of the usual structures that enable mourning in community.

By April, we were planning our own webinar, which we ran the first week in May, “How to Talk With Your Children About Loss and Death,” for which more than 1300 people registered in advance, with more than 300 people sending us questions in advance for our panelists to answer. Parents are ill equipped to respond to the depth and scope of the issues this virus is raising, from things like job loss, to the closing of schools, to the canceling of camp, to the death of grandparents and caregivers, and so, so much more. We are raising a generation of children who are experiencing loss unlike any other losses we have experienced as parents, and we simply have very few points of reference to figure out how to respond. What brings me some sense of relief here is that despite this feeling unprecedented, throughout history, humanity has lived through pandemics, and in Jewish tradition, we have plenty of wisdom that came about in response to things like plagues.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. Can you please share your “5 Steps That Each Of Us Can Take To Proactively Help Heal Our Country”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

Spend more time on love.

One of my kids has had a particularly rough time with “Zoom school.” I figured out that the days on which I spent more time offering hugs, staying connected physically, cuddling together reading all of our PJ Library books, taking more breaks from work to check in and offer affirmation and validation — those were the days that were a little less hard. Kids, strike that, we all need to feel love, and that’s something that is much harder to feel through a screen. For those who have the ability to be in human contact with others, giving and getting love can be essential in healing the pain of this crisis, the grief from all of the loss — the loss of life as we knew it, and the literal loss of life.

Give to others who are worse off than you.

Once we felt comfortable going out a bit more, we started gathering things we no longer needed that we knew could be used by others. Sure, we made some donations online, but the physical act of collecting the unused food we overbought as the crisis hit and schlepping it to a local spot for others to be able to take it had a much different impact on my understanding and experience of our situation. There’s a growing movement of “free food refrigerators” around the world, with several in neighborhoods around New York City. There’s one location not more than a mile from my home, where a local restaurant has plugged in an unused refrigerator right outside their door, right next to the last stop on the subway that goes to our neighborhood. People leave food in, on, and next to the fridge, and those in need come and take.

Find meaning in your new normal.

My wife has said several times now that once we go back to school/work in person every day, the thing she’s going to miss most are the family dinners we’re having nearly every night. In our home, between extracurricular activities and work schedules and commuting, we used to look forward to dinner together on Friday night, Shabbat dinner in our home, as our chance to catch up and regroup as a family, and often, to share that meal with friends. Our whole routine has changed, and the ability to cook simple foods daily and eat each day together in person has completely changed our family’s rhythm. There’s meaning in that shift for us, and we’re thinking a lot about how our family rhythm might look once we get back to school and work out of the house.

Commit to making change beyond this crisis.

What are the lessons you’ve learned as a result of your personal experience in this pandemic? What are the ways you’ve gained perspective, improved something in your life, or done something different?

This time out from the lives we used to lead offers us the opportunity to commit to change beyond the crisis.

Deepen your relationships with those around you.

Who are you speaking with on a regular basis on the phone, or Facetime, or Zoom? Who are the people you can’t wait to hug again in person?

Now’s the time to talk to those you love and miss most, to express feelings through words while we can’t enjoy the physical expressions we relied on in the past.

It’s very nice to suggest ideas, but what can we do to make these ideas a reality? What specific steps can you suggest to make these ideas actually happen? Are there things that the community can do to help you promote these ideas?

I’ve been inspired by local parents in my area who have taken it upon themselves to deliver loaves of fresh challah and sweet notes on occasional Fridays to other families in their neighborhoods as a way to keep the families connected while they are unable to gather in person. These parents happen to be PJ Library Parent Connectors — local moms who work for PJ Library a few hours each week to engage families with one another “beyond the books” in their neighborhoods, parents who used to do things like organize playground meet-ups and parents’ nights out, and have moved their organizing online for the time being, with the exception of these touching deliveries. One mom has been serving as a “yeast peddler” in her neighborhood, delivering bags of yeast by bicycle with her small child on the back of the bike. I’ve seen this move toward greater connection happening beyond PJ Library communities as well, where families will post in local parenting groups online that they have a surplus of some food item, or clothes and toys their children have outgrown, inviting folks to set up socially distanced hand offs. This idea of neighbors getting to know one another, of communities taking on responsibility to help others in their midst, these are the things I think we should be considering as this pandemic stretches into next year. All it takes is one empowered person inviting someone to join them in creating change.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

Yes, I’m optimistic about the long run. As the parent of a child with a rare genetic illness, I have confidence in science — my child’s disease is manageable thanks to early detection and daily treatment. I am optimistic that eventually, we will have access to a vaccine, and/or treatment that will lessen the severity of this virus. Having lived through the AIDS crisis in my teens and early 20s, I know this kind of change is possible.

If you could tell other young people one thing about why they should consider making a positive impact on our environment or society, like you, what would you tell them?

While I may be in the business of peddling Jewish values through our books at PJ Library, Jewish values can often be understood as human values, viewed through a Jewish lens. I’d tell young people to spend some time thinking about the things that are most important to them — whether these are things they learned from their families, or their community, or from mentors, or media — clarify what is most important to you, and then commit to making change. We don’t all need to take on every cause, but when each of us takes on some cause, collectively, our power will help to change the world.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I’d love to have coffee with Chelsea Clinton. As the parent of young children in New York City with older parents living in the ‘burbs, I’d love to compare notes on that similarity between us, and to speak about her books that help young people figure out how they can make a difference in this world.

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