An Air Force chaplain. A rabbi. An exceptional student. All three describe this soon-to-be graduate who discovered his unique path to a lifetime of service while at WVU.
Written by Marissa Sura
Photographs by M.G. Ellis
The walls at Hillel House at West Virginia University are lined with books. On a shelf in the corner sits a small, cloth-bound text. Its olive hue has faded, and its edges are worn and frayed. The pages are yellowed with age and are beginning to crumble.
Although its full provenance is unknown, the book’s pages reveal that it was published nearly 100 years ago at the start of World War I as a prayer book for Jews in the military.
It seems fitting then, that Zevi Lowenberg, a future rabbi and Air Force chaplain, found that century-old prayer book at the place that has been his second home on campus.
A Baltimore native – and die-hard Orioles fan – Lowenberg will be joining 4,500 other WVU students during Commencement weekend May 15-17 when he receives his bachelor of arts in sociology and anthropology from the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences.
Lowenberg came to WVU four years ago to pursue a criminology major and political science minor. His goal was to enter the intelligence field of the military and then eventually pursue a career with a government agency.
“I’m interested in the changing tides of crime and how we view criminal activity in our country, particularly in terms of media coverage,” he said.
As a senior, Lowenberg participated in the Inside-Out Prison Exchange Program, a nationwide criminology course held inside a United States penitentiary. Together, college students and inmates discussed perceptions about crime and developed ideas for improving criminal justice.
Lowenberg said the class was eye opening and revealed our common humanity.
“It’s almost unbelievable that I attended class with 18 maximum security inmates,” he said. “But it was an incredible experience. We were there to learn with them and that’s exactly what we did. It was the most honest group of men I’ve ever had the privilege to be in class with.”
While at WVU, Lowenberg also joined the Air Force ROTC program.
“I grew up hearing stories of both of my grandfathers’ experiences in World War II and my great uncle’s time in Korea, so I had great respect for military service,” he said.
But looking back, the events of a clear Tuesday morning in 2001 are what motivated him to serve.
“I was 8 years old when the Towers fell,” he said, remembering Sept. 11, 2001. “At the time I didn’t fully comprehend what had happened. I knew my teachers were crying and I saw tragic images replayed on television for weeks.”
But Lowenberg said that he wasn’t afraid. He was allowed to go to school and get an education. He was allowed to play outside. He was free and surrounded by his family.
“I’m part of the 9/11 generation, so I decided that no matter what, I’m going to serve this country and find a way to give back,” he said.
Another significant influence on Lowenberg’s childhood was the vibrant Jewish community he grew up in. From a young age Lowenberg was encouraged to participate in prayer services. At his Jewish day school he looked forward to his Jewish history classes and learning about the Torah.
“At 6 years old I decided to either be a firefighter or a rabbi,” he said. “Learning about my Jewish identity was a big part of my life.”
To come here as a new student and to be the person that could lead and would lead felt great. The Jewish community here was relying on me, but I was also relying on them to lend their presence to the service, to offer their prayers and to make a connection with God.
On a college visit, Lowenberg heard about WVU Hillel’s observance of Yom Ha’Shoah,
the annual Holocaust Remembrance Day. Over a 24-hour period, 20,000 names of
Holocaust victims are read aloud in the
to honor the millions whose lives were taken.
Lowenberg was impressed with the University support of the event and the “small, but mighty” Jewish student population on campus.
“Knowing that the administration and students supported such an important event on the Hillel calendar and knowing that this remembrance occurred in the Mountainlair – the center of student life on campus – made me want to come to WVU,” he said.
Lowenberg wasted no time getting involved with Hillel. He was excited to help strengthen the Jewish presence on campus. Only a few weeks into his first semester at WVU he led his first service.
“It meant a lot to me,” he said. “To come here as a new student and to be the person that could lead and would lead felt great. The Jewish community here was relying on me, but I was also relying on them to lend their presence to the service, to offer their prayers and to make a connection with God.”
Lowenberg started leading prayers that semester and never looked back. He’s led almost every service since then and has been president of WVU Hillel for the past two years.
Once again Lowenberg felt a call to serve, but this time it would take him down a sacred path.
“Who knew that WVU could create a rabbi?” he asked with a smile.
During ROTC field training, Lowenberg met an Air Force chaplain. He saw the calming effect that the chaplain had on the cadets. He saw how everyone – officers and cadets alike – relied on the chaplain in times of need.
At that moment, something clicked.
“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,” he said.
So just nine days after graduation, Lowenberg will begin a rigorous five-year rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York City.
After being ordained a rabbi, he will seek a commission to become a chaplain in the Air Force and will be deployed somewhere in the world to support a diverse, interfaith group of airmen and their families.
“As a rabbi I will minister to those of Jewish faith, but as a chaplain I will have the opportunity to provide counsel to anyone who is searching for answers outside themselves,” he said.
Although there is only a small number of Jews in the military, Lowenberg remains steadfast.
“People will seek me out in their most vulnerable moments,” he said. “It will be my honor to help them find answers or to simply listen.”
“No matter what belief system a person follows, there is always common ground.
I want to get to know people on an individual basis and work from there,” he
Lowenberg said that his time at WVU has been defining.
He discovered his role as a community leader on campus and at Hillel, he discovered how he could give back in military service and he discovered ways to strengthen his own Jewish identity while learning from others.
He discovered that century-old prayer book sitting on a shelf.
“The best decision I ever made was coming to WVU and I’ve done my best to make the most out of the four short years that I got to be a student here,” he said.
“It has been the greatest experience any student could wish for.”