Cantor Amy Levy Celebrates 20 Years at Keneseth Israel

Cantor Amy Levy (Photo by Laurel Harrish Photography)

The first thing you notice about Cantor Amy Levy is her smile. It’s wide and infectious. It lights up the room. It also comes out as soon as she sees you.

This is true if she’s on the bimah at Reform Congregation Keneseth Israel, but it’s also true if she’s in an office meeting, according to Rabbi Lance Sussman, KI’s spiritual leader from 2001-’22.

Levy’s smile has greeted people at this Old York Road shul for 20 years. And in April, everyone will smile back at her. That’s when KI, a community with about 800 households, will celebrate the cantor’s anniversary.

“I’ve got another 20 years in me,” the 50-year-old said. “I love KI.”

Levy grew up in Sioux City, Iowa, studied vocal performance at the University of Kansas, got ordained at the Debbie Friedman School of Sacred Music in New York City and began her career at Temple Israel in Tulsa, Oklahoma, from 2000-’04.

During cantorial school, she answered a bulletin board post asking for a cantor to help officiate at the bar mitzvah of a rabbi’s son in Binghamton, New York. Levy reached out to the rabbi, Lance Sussman. She rode to Binghamton on a Greyhound bus. Sussman picked her up at the station.

“She was the last one left. A young lady. Pigtails. Smiley. I said, ‘Are you a cantor?’” the rabbi recalled.

On the car ride back to Sussman’s house, the rabbi found that they had easy chemistry. Then at his kitchen table, Levy began braiding Sussman’s daughter’s hair.

“It all just fit together,” Sussman said.

Then at the bar mitzvah service, “She was spectacular,” he recalled.

“She has this beautiful voice,” Sussman said. “And she has a way of singing that allows the congregation to participate. It’s an inviting voice.”

At the end of the weekend, the rabbi took the cantor back to the station, shook her hand and said, “Hopefully, one day I’ll have a bigger synagogue and we’ll work together.”

The rabbi left Binghamton for Elkins Park in time for High Holiday services in 2001. A couple of years later, KI needed a cantor. He called Levy. She had a year left on her contract at Temple Israel in Tulsa and told Sussman she wouldn’t break it.

“I said, ‘That’s why I like you,’” Sussman recalled.

Six months later, Sussman called again. Levy told him she was not renewing her contract.

“Would you apply for mine?” Sussman asked.

“Yes,” Levy answered.

“The biggest reason why I wanted to come here was because of Rabbi Lance Sussman,” Levy said. “We connected instantly.”

Then, on one of her first days at KI, “my future husband opened the door for me,” Levy said. Ross M. Levy was a Hebrew school teacher looking for a job at a local synagogue.

“It’s hard to pinpoint exactly, but it felt to me at that moment like I knew I was holding the door for not just a regular person,” Levy said.

Cantor Amy Levy has played a leading role in organizing KI’s Champions for Cheltenham program, which helps local students. (Courtesy of Cantor Amy Levy)

He was 23 and she was 30. Once he started working at KI, he would stop by her office to ask for “advice” on his musical compositions, said Levy. He wanted to spend time with her.

“It was something about her smile and her genuine desire to do real work in the Jewish community,” Ross Levy said.

They got married in 2007 and “settled in Elkins Park,” according to Today, they have two teenage daughters, Aria and Kira. Ross Levy works as the director of youth engagement at Main Line Reform Temple-Beth Elohim in Wynnewood.

Levy is also now the longest-tenured clergy member at KI. After Sussman retired in 2022, Rabbi Benjamin David replaced him. The cantor has a strong working relationship with him as well.

She also says she still has “a lot of dreams about what I’d like to accomplish.” The cantor has run the synagogue’s bar and bat mitzvah program since she arrived.

In addition to those duties and her duties on the bimah, Levy helped establish KI as a community service institution. Through her Champions for Cheltenham program, Levy helps organize tutoring for local students. With her Caring Community program, she puts together “meal trains” for people who are sick.

“It’s important for me to connect people through the modality of music, but it has expanded,” Levy said of her role.

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