Once there was a 6-year-old boy who wanted to be a firefighter — or a rabbi. When he was 8 years old, on a sunny Tuesday morning in 2001, he was sitting in his Jewish day school classroom when someone came in and said, “Don’t worry if you see your teachers crying. There’s been a plane crash in New York. Your parents may be coming to pick you up.” He saw the horrifying images on the TV screens and understood that something terrible had happened to his country.
Even before that, he wanted to be in the military, but as he got older he realized that the freedoms he had were because “there were men and women protecting us so that kind of thing was not going to happen again in the United States. I wanted to give back, and that was the way I was going to give back.”
Rabbi — soldier — for some kids, those dreams would have faded as they grew up, but not for Baltimore native Ze’ev Lowenberg. On May 17, Lowenberg graduated from West Virginia University with a degree in sociology and anthropology/criminology and in a few weeks will be moving to New York City to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary’s five-year program for Conservative rabbinic ordination.
After he graduates, he will serve his country and his people by becoming one of a handful of Jewish chaplains in the Air Force.
“I realized that becoming an Air Force chaplain was how I could connect what I had been learning in the classroom with my desire to serve my country and my Jewish faith,” said Lowenberg.
With not quite 1,000 Jewish students on a campus of 30,000, West Virginia University was a surprising choice for a young man who attended a Jewish day school and high school. The easy and expected path would have been to go to college at one of the main Jewish centers on the East Coast such as New York, Philadelphia or Baltimore.
Lowenberg pointed out that, “Most people would choose to stay in their comfort zone; West Virginia was far outside of mine.”
But Lowenberg wanted a place where he could make a difference.
WVU turned out to be an excellent choice. He was the only Jewish student there who had a day school education. From his first semester, he led services at WVU Hillel, led Seders, led almost every service since he arrived. For the past two years he was WVU Hillel president.
Lowenberg said he “got to be a big fish in a little pond, to be able to influence the Jewish community” at WVU in a way he never would have been able to in a large, established Jewish community. He got to “experience the love of Judaism in a much different way. The Jewish community was relying on me, but I was also relying on them — to lend their presence to the services, to offer their prayers and to make a connection with God.”
Lowenberg’s original plan was to have a career in the military and then join a government intelligence agency after separation. But while at WVU, he joined the Air Force ROTC and saw what an impact the Air Force chaplain made on the cadets, how he was able to calm and comfort them. That sealed it for him: He would become a chaplain.
Half of WVU’s students are West Virginia residents; the other half are from outside the state and outside the country. The vast majority are Christians.
Some students “have told me I was the first Jew they had ever met,” said Lowenberg. “They ask me about rituals and why do you wear a kippah. Have you ever tasted pig? How can you not eat a pepperoni roll? Pepperoni is huge here and of course I can’t eat it. I tell them about keeping kosher, where it comes from. Most of them are incredibly interested: they want to know more.
“I love being the first Jew people meet because I think that if they can meet someone who is proud of being Jewish, who is knowledgeable about Judaism, and about Israel, we can educate people and rid the world of anti-Semitism, slowly but surely,” he added.
WVU official Marissa Sura was effusive in her praise of the graduate.
“Zevi is a natural leader,” said Sura. “He is extraordinarily mature, he’s funny. He is confident about his choice of a lifelong calling, and as soon as you talk to him you can tell he is perfect for it. I’ve spoken to a lot of students in my career. He is one of the most outstanding students I’ve ever met.”
Lowenberg described his core beliefs: “I believe in an active God. I think that everything happens for a reason. It may take us five minutes, five weeks or five years to understand that reason,” he said. “If we take a step out of ourselves and make that connection with God, it helps us get through both the good and the bad things of life. We shouldn’t just ask God for things and pray in times of need or in times of sorrow. I do my best to also pray and to thank God when good things happen.”
A version of this article first appeared in The Jewish Chronicle in Pittsburgh.