Along the Potomac River in Loudoun County, far west of the hubs of Jewish life in Northern Virginia, the Landsdowne Woods retirement community offers all the amenities seniors have come to expect. There are theater productions, a full service restaurant, tennis courts. And once a month, there is a Shabbat service.
Just over a decade ago, with little in the way of institutional support, a group of seniors started a Jewish tradition here that includes educational, cultural and religious programming. It’s completely lay led, though by now the Leisure World Jewish Community has become recognized enough to attract rabbis from area congregations and guest lecturers. The group organizes High Holiday services as well, and for Passover, about 30 people attended a seder catered by the community.
Though he’s reluctant to give himself credit, Michael Leavitt, 73, was instrumental in the group’s development. The longtime Northern Virginia resident helps organize and lead services, which mix Reform and Conservative traditions and typically attract around 20 residents, Leavitt says.
But in the early goings, things were difficult.
“It wasn’t easy to be Jewish out here. We didn’t even have one Wegman’s out here and now we have two,” Leavitt says, laughing. “We tried to get prayer books from communities that weren’t using them anymore. And at the time, 11 years ago, we called around to various Northern Virginia Jewish agencies and didn’t get a whole lot of help. Nobody knew that there was anything to do here in Loudoun County. And that’s changed.”
Eventually, though, as Jewish life began to grow in Washington’s southwestern suburbs, some help arrived. For a number of years, the Jewish Community Center of Northern Virginia arranged religious and cultural programs at Landsdowne Woods and now, Leavitt says, the group has strong ties to the synagogues in the area.
For Leavitt, religion was not always this significant. The fact that he’s a prominent lay-leader in the Northern Virginia Jewish community might surprise his younger self. He grew up in a secular Jewish family on Long Island.
“We went to a Reform synagogue and it was for the explicit purpose of having the two boys in the family get bar mitzvahed,” Leavitt says. “Because if we didn’t, it would have caused the immediate death of both grandmothers.”
He and his brother understood this as well, and so as Levitt grew up and went off to college, Judaism completely fell off the radar. He pursued academic achievement in international relations and information technology, receiving degrees from MIT, Wayne State University and Northwestern University. He met his wife, Eva, in 1965. And she had what he calls a “stronger Jewish connection.” When they married after he finished his undergraduate degree, she told him she wanted to keep a kosher house. Leavitt says he was unfamiliar with how to do so but happy to go along. Slowly, Eva’s commitment began to wear off on him.
Leavitt took a job at the Brookings Institution, and when the couple moved to Reston in the early 1970s, they joined the burgeoning Northern Virginia Hebrew Congregation, a Reform synagogue in the recently founded community.
“We said, ‘Well, we own a house, so we might as well act like adults.’ So we joined that community,” Leavitt says. “She was comfortable in a Reform synagogue and I was comfortable where she was comfortable. And slowly, I developed my own interest in the Jewish side of things.”
That interest took a number of forms. One was a sampling of Jewish life in the Washington area. In the 1980s, he became intrigued with Reconstructionist Judaism after attending lectures by Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who was forming Adat Shalom Congregation in Potomac.
By the 1990s, he’d become intrigued by Jewish mysticism, and decided to apply his academic aptitude to Judaism, enrolling in Baltimore Hebrew University’s Master of Jewish Studies program while working for the Central Intelligence Agency.
“In Jewish thought, there is a principle of getting really close to God, and the mystics made that closeness a very real thing,” Leavitt says. “It was a closeness of the soul. In Chasidism, we call that devakut, and my thesis was about the development of the concept from biblical times to Chabad and in the present day.”
He studied under Shimon Shokek, a professor of Judaic studies and comparative religion at the university (which is now a part of Towson University). And when the Israeli-born Shokek wanted a native English speaker to help him with a book, he asked Leavitt to serve as editor. In 2000, “Kabbalah and the Art of Being” was published.
By 2003, Leavitt had retired from the CIA and graduated from Baltimore Hebrew. And for the next 10 years, he regularly lectured in the Washington area, discussing topics like Jewish rational philosophers at the Smithsonia, the Jewish world of the 16th century at Temple Rodef Shalom in Falls Church and Jewish ethics at Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg.
“The fun part of any of that is the preparation,” Leavitt says. “Coming up with an idea for a talk and motivating yourself to go read about it, motivating yourself to go talk about it and putting together the presentation.”
Recently, Leavitt has begun to turn down some invitations to lecture, preferring instead to relax and enjoy life at Landwowne Woods. In April, he played the leader of the Munchkins in the community’s production of “The Wizard of Oz.”
Leavitt says that for now, he has no more degrees to pursue or areas of study he wants to dive into. But he’s focused on helping the Leisure World Jewish Community become a lasting part of Landsdowne Woods.
“When you get into your 70s, you inevitably start thinking about your own mortality,” Leavitt says. “And if I had any plans, it would be more along the lines of figuring out a way to keep our community here going in case I get hit by a truck.”