Congregation Bet Shalom will celebrate its 30th year by honoring Rabbi Philip (“Billy”) Lewkowicz and his wife, Ada, at a gala dinner on March 3.
“Rabbi Billy has been associated with our congregation as a guest speaker, participant in study groups and panel discussions and especially as our religious school director for many years. We feel very fortunate to have a teacher of his caliber in our Sunday school,” says Jeff Bridge, president of Bet Shalom, who notes that proceeds from the event also will benefit Tucson Hebrew Academy and Jewish Family & Children’s Services.
The Lewkowiczes came to Tucson in 1994. Rabbi Billy, as he is known throughout the community, is also director of Judaic studies at THA and an instructor at Hebrew High. In his native South Africa, where he earned bachelor’s degrees in education and psychology, he was a teacher at Yeshiva College and campus rabbi at King David School in Johannesburg. Among other positions, he also served as assistant chaplain of Jewish soldiers in the South African Defense Force.
In 1994, he received a special recognition award from soon-to-be President Nelson Mandela for a “Street Wise” youth peace rally he helped organize.
A group of doctors had come to King David School, he explains, seeking help with a program to get kids from the black township of Soweto off the streets of Johannesburg, where they were “kind of lost in the city — they ended up shoplifting, running drugs and eating out of dumpsters.” The doctors had opened a shelter but they weren’t looking for donations. Instead, Rabbi Billy, with the help of a social worker, set up weekly cross-racial team-building games and the groups of kids became good friends.
“Just before the elections in South Africa, there was a lot of violence,” Rabbi Billy continues. The Street Wise organizers decided to hold a peace rally “of kids joining in arms and marching through the streets.”
“The climate was right” and students from many schools in Soweto and white schools in Johannesburg joined in the march. By the time they reached the stadium where the rally took place there were over 60,000 kids. “Bands came along and decided to play,” he says, and Coca-Cola, a kosher butcher and other businesses donated refreshments. Mandela had been invited but didn’t attend; he sent “one of his right-hand men called Walter Sisulu,” an official with the African National Congress. The next day two men showed up at Rabbi Billy’s home to invite him to a dinner with Mandela. Apprehensive but curious, Rabbi Billy attended along with some of the teen organizers, and Mandela handed out medals for programs that were helping to build the new South Africa, mentioning King David School and Street Wise.
In Tucson, Rabbi Billy’s positive outlook and magnetic personality are also deeply appreciated, with Bet Shalom’s Cantor Avi Alpert and school principal Susan Price both using the word “ruach,” or spirit, to describe him.
“Rabbi Billy is a genuine soul who is filled with ruach and with divine energy and love for all people, and especially for the Jewish people,” says Alpert, who has co-officiated with Rabbi Billy at several weddings since Alpert came on board at Bet Shalom in July, as well as working together at Bet Shalom’s religious school and at THA, where Alpert volunteers as a tefilla (prayer) teacher. A native Arizonan, Alpert has known Rabbi Billy and Ada for years.
“They are both filled with sweetness and openness and kindness. I’ve never seen them express any anger or negative feelings toward anyone. They are always able to see the positive qualities in everything and it makes it a pleasure to be around them and to work with them,” says Alpert.
Alpert notes that starting this month, Rabbi Billy will be joining Bet Shalom’s monthly Saturday Night Alive musical Havdallah program, “sharing stories of the Torah.”
Calling Rabbi Billy “a true mensch,” Price says the congregation has been “blessed and privileged” by his service in the school and beyond. “Rabbi Billy’s teaching of the Torah and Midrash are done in a positive and uplifting manner with amazing ruach. It is a treat to watch him use stories and games to inspire our students to bring light to the world through mitzvot. In Rabbi Billy’s own inspiring words that he states to the students, I’d like to share with everyone, Rabbi Billy, ‘You are awesome!’”
Price adds that it has been “a privilege to see Rabbi Billy with his wife, Ada, and their children; you see a close family that cares for one another and that lives their belief in all aspects of their life.”
Bridge notes that “rabbi Billy has a very special gift as he is a master of storytelling, with messages for both students and adults. His magnetism attracts children of all ages.
“In addition,” says Bridge, “Rabbi Billy has been very helpful for many years in lifecycle events. I am in awe when I see Rabbi Billy walk for miles to get to Bet Shalom, including hot summer days, to honor a new B’nai Mitzvah on Shabbat.”
Rabbi Billy reciprocates the congregation’s affection. “I found them to be the warmest, most caring people that I’ve come across,” he says, noting that his involvement with Bet Shalom grew from a single adult education class on Saturday afternoons that inspired “amazing” discussions. Along with an enthusiasm for learning, he says, Bet Shalom members are eager to do mitzvot. “In the community, if something needed help to be done,” he says, members would respond immediately, always supportive of programs outside as well as within their own synagogue. “I was very impressed by that,” he says. “I could never part myself from that because they became, they are, very genuine friends.”
The March 3 gala will be held at the Tucson Jewish Community Center from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. There will be live music and Bet Shalom’s Israel-based Rabbi David Ebstein will be on hand to help celebrate the honorees. Tickets are $65 for adults and $18 for children 12 and under. To RSVP or for information about a tribute journal and commemorative T-shirt, call 577-1171.