Rabbi Sheryl Lewart, who served as associate rabbi at Kehillat Israel (KI) in Pacific Palisades, died Nov. 30 at the age 65 after a second battle with breast cancer.
Lewart was diagnosed with cancer in 1995 and had a recurrence as she was about to retire from KI in 2009.
Lewart was a soulful, nonjudgmental teacher who helped others find spiritual meaning in deep, intellectual Torah study, said Steven Carr Reuben, rabbi of KI, a 1,000-family Reconstructionist congregation.
“She had this gentleness and tenderness in how she taught and led services that was her own unique magic,” Reuben said. “She was able to tap into emotional places that connected people in a serious way to Jewish life. It was about feeling part of something bigger than yourself, something authentic and grounded in thousands of years of what Jewish civilization is all about.”
Lewart founded KI’s Jewish Learning Initiative, an adult-education program, and she created the congregation’s adult b’nai mitzvah program. Students would often start with her at a basic level and then continue on to long-term, deeper study with her, Reuben said.
Born and raised Conservative in New York, Lewart came to the rabbinate as a third career. She ran a school for gifted children in Pennsylvania and then was an antiques dealer. Her love for Jewish texts and traditions brought her to the rabbinate, and she was ordained at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College (RRC) in 1994. She taught for four years at the RRC and edited its basic Judaism curriculum, “Jewish, Alive & American.”
Her first book, “Change Happens: Owning the Jewish Holidays in a Reconstructionist Tradition” (Cherbo Publishing Group: 2009), offered new perspectives and practices for Jewish holidays.
She was a founder of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality in New York.
Lewart built strong friendships with other women rabbis. Every year after the High Holy Days, Lewart, Malibu Jewish Center & Synagogue’s Rabbi Judith HaLevy, Wilshire Boulevard Temple’s Rabbi Karen Fox and Academy for Jewish Religion, California’s Rabbi Toba August made a pilgrimage to a Desert Hot Springs spa to debrief, decompress and study Torah.
Along with Lewart’s intellectual and interpersonal gifts, she appreciated things beautiful and fun and brought a lightness to an intense vocation, Fox said.
HaLevy said Lewart faced her illness with bravery and grace. She traveled with her husband, Bob Auerbach, until she no longer could, going to Israel often to visit her daughter and her family, and to Northern California to see her son and his family. She created a garden haven in her home, with a hot tub, fountains, wind chimes and hidden good luck charms. She continued teaching at KI until just recently and had a rotation of daily Torah study with HaLevy, Fox and August.
She spent her last months completing a book of blessings based on the weekly Torah portions. KI is collecting donations in Lewart’s memory to complete publication of the book.
Lewart’s family and a cadre of women were with her when she died. As Lewart had requested, HaLevy and Rabbi Anne Brenner prepared her body for burial, as Cantor Julie Silver sang psalms. At first the women at the Chevra Kadisha Mortuary were surprised by the singing, HaLevy said.
“And at the end, they said, ‘This women must have been an amazing soul.’ Even after her life, she continued to teach,” HaLevy said.
Lewart was buried in a family plot at Hunter Gardens in New York, and 300 people attended a Dec. 2 memorial at KI.
Lewart is survived by her husband Bob Auerbach; children Judy (Boaz) Amidor and Mark (Sarah) Shulewitz; five grandchildren; and mother, Mickey.
To read Lewart’s weekly blessings, visit ourki.org/rabbi-sheryl-lewarts-blessings. To write an online tribute or to make a donation, visit ourki.org.