by Lou Mancinelli
Multi-talented and multi-tasking Sean Zevit is an actor, author and musician, as well as the newly installed rabbi at the progressive Mishkan Shalom synagogue in Roxborough.
A Cleveland resident since 2009, Zevit served as visiting rabbi at a synagogue in Detroit last year before he applied at Mishkan Shalom. Drawn by the reputation of Northwest Philadelphia, which he called the soul center of the reconstructionist and revivalist Jewish movement, he joined the congregation this July.
Zevit, 53, has more than 25 years of experience in spiritual leadership, educational arts, organizational consulting and training and has consulted with over 500 institutions and faith communities across the nation. He has also taught interpersonal and organizational communications at the University of Toronto and Temple University, and recorded five albums of his original music with various musicians, including some who performed with Van Morrison.
“I don’t separate those things,” said Zevit, talking about the mix of music, teaching and religious work. “Before, I was rabbi-ing,” as Zevit put it. “It’s a verb, not just a noun.”
In addition to recording and performing music, writing numerous articles and a book, for the past 14 years Zevit has worked as a consultant for the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation (JRF). There he provided resources, from leadership and growth, to spiritual training in traditional Jewish values for congregations across the country.
In a way, Zevit worked as the rabbi to the rabbis. Whatever a synagogue needed, Zevit worked to provide the necessary help. While his work and writing covers many different issues, one that transcends all faiths is money. Zevit has explored the oft-divorced marriage of spirituality and money and contends the two can be happily wed. He teaches that creating a financially stable congregation and community are traditional Jewish values. The question is how to use one’s resources for the sake of the transcended values shared by the community.
In 2005, his book, “Offerings of the Heart: Money and Values in Faith Communities,” was published by the Alban Institute, an ecumenical organization. Zevit has spoken across the country about how finances can be feared or geared towards accomplishing the larger goals of a congregation like a social cause or caring for a neighbor.
“Resources used to be aligned,” said Zevit. “It isn’t that money is here and spirituality is there.” Part of his role of rabbi is to catalyze and encourage relationships between members. When he lived in Mt. Airy in the ‘90s, it was a community where he could envision himself living permanently one day, and now he is. His wife Simcha, is a rabbi in Cleveland, and he is still waiting for his wife and nine-year-old stepson to relocate to our area.
For Zevit, the transition from working with rabbis and leaders at spiritual and educational institutions across the world while he worked for the JRF, to actually serving a congregation as rabbi, marks the crystallization of a long arch of spiritual development.
Years earlier, his decision to formally study spirituality developed on the heels of a decade working in theater in Canada, creating performances that explored social issues and used the stage as a catalyst for dialogue.
The Canadian-born theater graduate from York University in Toronto moved to Mt. Airy when he was 33 in the early ‘90s to study at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote. “Really, the question was what am I going to do with the next stage of my life?” said Zevit about his thought process at the time.
It was the core statement principles from the congregation and leaders of Mishkan Shalom that attracted Zevit to this community. Those principles are lifelong study of the Torah, not just the texts but also its ethics, acts of caring and restoring justice that Zevit has strived to weave and balance in his work and life.
He has also recorded five albums of original music, is a founding member of musical groups like Shabbat Unplugged, Playback Philadelphia and other organizations like the Institute for Contemporary Midrash and the Davenning Leaders Training Institute. He also teaches at Gratz College’s Melton Adult Mini-School in Philadelphia. “I’ve always weaved it in,” said Zevit about also finding time for musical projects. When he’s in different cities, he finds musicians to play with.
One of the hallmarks of the Jewish reconstructionist movement has been the acceptance of all peoples into its communities, regardless of race, gender or sexual orientation. It’s that sort of creative, dynamic community in which Zevit feels at home.