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Rabbi Barry Leff is going home. No, the spiritual leader of Toledo's Congregation B'nai Israel is not moving back to his birthplace of New York City; he is moving to Jerusalem.
"For me, Israel feels like home. For an observant Jew, living in a place like Toledo is very difficult. If you want to keep kosher, when you go to the grocery store you have to read labels very carefully. When you go a restaurant, you have to ask a lot of questions.
"In Israel, I can buy anything on the grocery shelves; I can eat anything on the menu at restaurants."
But a sense of comfort is only one of many reasons that Rabbi Leff, his wife, Lauri Donahue, and their three youngest daughters - Katherine, 11; Lizzy, 9, and Devorah, 6 - are moving to the Middle East after three years in Toledo.
"The state of Israel is the most exciting thing to happen to the Jewish people in 2,000 years," Rabbi Leff said in a recent interview. "For 2,000 years, our ancestors dreamed of the day we would once again be able to live in a Jewish state. Our generation has the wonderful opportunity of living at a time when we can fulfill that dream, and we want to be a part of it."
It only became possible in May, 1948, when the United Nations established Israel as an independent state.
"The fact that we can live in a Jewish country is truly miraculous," Rabbi Leff said.
Looking back at his three years at B'nai Israel, a Conservative congregation in Sylvania, he said the life cycle numbers are not very positive.
"I've officiated at 51 funerals, 27 b'nei mitzvah, and only two weddings, and one of those weddings was for an out-of-town member," he said.
"It reflects the demographic changes in the community. The congregation is shrinking," Rabbi Leff said.
And yet, he said, "In the face of challenging demographics, the congregation has done some tremendous stuff."
B'nai Israel moved into a new $4 million synagogue in January without incurring any debt, for example. The new building is about half the size of the previous synagogue on Kenwood Boulevard, which was sold to the University of Toledo.
Rabbi Leff also looks back with pride on his work promoting interfaith efforts, participating in numerous community programs such as Erase the Hate and with the MultiFaith Council of Northwest Ohio.
He initiated one himself, a series of lectures by local Jewish, Muslim, and Catholic clerics.
"My one small regret is that now that we have built relationships, especially with the Muslim community, and have gotten to know each other, we could have really begun discussing more controversial issues," he said.
Dr. S. Zaheer Hasan, a former president of the Islamic Center of Greater Toledo, lauded Rabbi Leff's interfaith work.
"We are sad that he is leaving us because we really think this gentleman did a lot to bridge some difficult relations which we have had," Dr. Hasan said. "He was very forthcoming to come and talk to the Muslim community about the basics of Judaism, and his lectures were well received. He has extended a hand of friendship to us at a difficult time and we certainly will miss him."
Rabbi Leff said he believes interfaith efforts in cities like Toledo, not just in political centers like Washington, can have profound results.
"I believe interfaith dialogue is the path to peace - true, lasting peace," Rabbi Leff said. "Political leaders cannot mandate peace. It has to come from the ground up."
Meeting people of other faiths and ethnic groups face to face, "we see the godly in others and we realize that we share many of the same dreams and hopes."
Rabbi Leff, 50, began his rabbinical studies after his wife converted to Judaism about 13 years ago. He grew up in a family that was not observant, but as an adult he began delving into the sacred texts and found that the Kabbalah, a mystical side of Judaism, connected everything in a way that made sense to him.
He holds a doctrate in business administration from Golden Gate University and founded a Silicon Valley telecommunications firm, Peninsula Engineering Group, that he nurtured into a $10 million a year manufacturing company.
"When I do something, I tend to go all the way," Rabbi Leff said.
He is a black belt in tae kwon do, a certified flight instructor, a scuba divemaster, and a "double diamond" skiier, for example.
Fagie Benstein, a former president of B'nai Israel, said she and her husband, Eli, are grateful for Rabbi Leff's leadership over the last three years.
"First of all, he is a serious scholar and has incredible standards," Mrs. Benstein said. "Learning and the study of Torah are quintessential to him. However, when he talks about God it's a very personal thing. It's not just this abstract kind of study."
She said the rabbi's "Introduction to Judaism" classes have resulted in 10 adults choosing to convert to Judaism. "These people are Jews by choice because of a very serious spiritual search, and I think they were drawn by Barry's intellect," Mrs. Benstein said.
She also praised Rabbi Leff's efforts to build interfaith relationships.
"All the rabbis in the Jewish community have been involved in interfaith efforts, but Rabbi Leff's work has just been unmatched," she said.
The Leffs lived in Israel in 2000, and going back had been on their mind ever since, the rabbi said. His two older daughters are on their own, and the time to relocate seemed right for his three youngest daughters.
Rabbi Leff said he is not worried about violence in Israel, even though he and his wife personally witnessed the start of the second intifada, or uprising, in September, 2005. That five-year wave of suicide bombings, shootings, and other attacks between Palestinians and Israelis took 5,000 lives until it ended in 2005.
Rabbi Leff said he and his wife were standing near the top of the Mount of Olives, working as extras in a Jean-Claude Van Damme and Charlton Heston Hollywood film called The Order - "not a very good movie, it went straight to video," Rabbi Leff added - when the intifada erupted.
"Being a former military man, I knew right away it wasn't popcorn," Rabbi Leff said.
In the midst of the intifada, Rabbi Leff said, there is an atmosphere of peace in Israel that is hard to explain to people who only read the headlines.
It's a "different kind" of peace, he said, exemplified by the way the whole city of 600,000 virtually shuts down on Friday evenings to observe the Sabbath.
Rabbi Leff said he is obviously concerned about Iran's nuclear buildup and the threats made against Israel by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinajad. But he lived in Iran in the 1970s, working as a telecommunications specialist advising the Iranian military - then a U.S. ally - and said Mr. Ahmadinajad does not represent the feelings of the Iranian people. He is hopeful the Iranian people will bring about a change in leadership.
Mrs. Benstein said the congregation will miss Rabbi Leff but they are glad the Neffs are following their heart.
"He's always talked about Israel. Israel has always been on his heart and mind. We don't mind being second to the state of Israel. And we know we'll continue a relationship with him."
Rabbi Leff will conduct his final services at Congregation B'nai Israel today and leave for Israel tomorrow.
Rabbi Moshe Saks of Calgary, Canada, will succeed him starting Aug. 1.
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