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Lead CU nephrology researcher doubles up as synagogue president

Dr. Levi examines his lulav and etrog prior to Sukkot. (Arlen Flax)

Despite Dr. Moshe Levi’s 50-page CV documenting his achievements in the field of nephrology, his humility reduces the voluminous bundle into a few well-chosen, passionate paragraphs.

Levi, casually dressed and sporting a kippah, has a friendly, candid and accessible demeanor. He quickly translates technical medical jargon into plain English the moment he catches a confused look.

The head of nephrology research at the UCD Anschutz Medical Campus, Levi supervises a large team investigating the role of phosphorous metabolism, Type I and II diabetes and aging in kidney disease.

“I spend 30% of my time with patients and 70% doing research,” says the 63-year-old, who gravitated toward nephrology while working on a collaborative project modeling kidney function in college.

When he entered Albert Einstein College of Medicine in 1974, he already was fluent in nephrology. “I could relate to the subject,” he says. Now that diabetes affects millions of Americans, including an accelerating number of children, it was a prescient choice.

Diabetes, which can lead to renal complications, dialysis and death, is often misconstrued, Levi says. While obesity is a major contributor to diabetes’ epidemic spike, he cautions that the disease evades a simplistic “A equals B” formula.

“We are dealing with a variety of factors that we don’t understand at this point,” he explains. “It’s like a New York subway map. You can’t just hit one of the stops. There are many stops along the way you have to hit.”

Aware that finding a cure is the great societal hope, Levi says he’ll be happy “if we find more effective, non-invasive treatments that will not harm or adversely affect the patient.

“We are making progress in diabetes-related nephrology through blood pressure and lipid control. But that’s not a cure. If we can make a dent, that’s fine. Kidney disease is not something you want.”

Levi, a fellow at CU Medical School from 1980-1983, returned to Denver in 2002 with his wife and children to become a lead researcher at UCD.

He chairs or is president of a mouthful of national boards and committees: the American Heart Assn.’s kidney in cardiovascular disease division, the Kern Aspen Lipid Conference, and the American Physiological Society’s epithelial transport group, to name a few.

Two years ago, he added the EDOS presidency to his portfolio.

“Compared to all the other organizations, EDOS is by far the toughest,” he comments wryly.

Levi was born in Istanbul, Turkey. He describes his family’s religious orientation as traditional. Although all Jewish synagogues in Turkey are Orthodox, individual practice vacillates considerably.

“I would say we were highly observant but not necessarily Orthodox,” he concludes after a brief, reflective pause.

When Spain expelled the Jews in the Inquisition, Levi’s family spread out across the continents. They finally settled in Turkey via England, Holland and Palestine. “Our presence in Turkey dates back a long time,” he says.

He grew up speaking Ladino and Turkish. A student at the American Robert Academy-Robert College High School, he gradually added English, French, Greek and Arabic to his linguistic inventory.

“It was great,” Levi sums up his youth in Turkey. “It was OK being a Jew there — within limits. People knew we were Jewish. We took off for the holidays. But we obeyed certain parameters.

“I got a real taste of our limitations as Jews in 1967, during the Six Day War. Once the Islamists began challenging the political system, I realized things were becoming more restricted.”

Levi arrived in US at age 19 to study at Northwestern University. It was 1969 — one of most the fractious and divisive eras in recent American history.

“I came during the Vietnam War,” he says. “I learned a lot.” But he steered clear of politics, an achievement in itself.

“I got involved with campus life: student government, fraternal groups [he pledged Phi Kappa Alpha, a non-Jewish fraternity], played on the soccer team and had a great social life.”

Then he attended Stanford University for graduate school. “It was incredible,” Levi enthuses. “I majored in chemical and biological engineering.”

Catching a perplexed expression, he elucidates.

“Chemical engineering involves petroleum, plastics, that kind of thing. A biological engineer applies the principles of chemical engineering to problems that are all related to medicine.”

Levi points to a wall montage in the IJN conference room chronicling the late Max Goldberg’s television days in Denver. “Is that a photo of Billy Graham?” he asks. “That man changed my life.”

Confusion is not limited to scientific terminology.

“I attended a Billy Graham convention in Chicago in 1972,” Levi explains. “They had just launched ‘Jews for Jesus.’ I said, ‘Holy cow, I can’t believe anyone would do this!’ That’s when I became more involved in Jewish life in this country.”

Levi says he never distanced himself from Judaism. “I was always traditional-pseudo observant,” he grins.

His Jewish observance continued to fluctuate — until he met Marilyn Eckstein at Stern College in New York and fell in love. Raised in a solidly traditional family, Eckstein wanted to become a doctor.

“Her family discouraged her from going to medical school,” he smiles. “I encouraged her.”

Dr. Eckstein Levi, voted one of the top infectious specialists two years in a row by 5280 Magazine, is now chief of transplant infectious disease at CU Hospital.

“You should do a story on her,” he suggests proudly. “Her story is very interesting.”

Marriage propelled Levi into a more observant lifestyle — “but never 100%,” he qualifies “I live a modern life. About 90% of my colleagues are not Jewish. My wife and I manage to balance the demands. It’s tough, but we do it.”

The Levis, who are the parents of Jessica Sara and Jonathan Chaim and have one grandchild, carry a lot of weight on their professional shoulders. Their respective workloads are intense.

“We see each other at home, when we’re not on call, on Shabbat and at night,” Levi says. “I also travel a lot to international and national meetings.”

Similar to balancing the demands of a religious life with the modern world, the Levis make their marriage work.

Aware that certain physicians harbor G-d complexes, Levi nods. “Some do, but not me. We work for G-d. We are not G-d by any means.

“No matter how analytical and scientific we are, there are things that transcend our understanding. There has to be a higher, complex being. Because I’m Jewish, I say that being is G-d.”

Levi rejects the notion that science cancels out G-d or that G-d cancels out science. “If you start with the premise that there is a G-d who controls everything, science must be part of the equation,” he says. “And science gives you a better appreciation of G-d.

“I have a different approach to science than I have to religion. Scientists are very picky. Everything must have a rationale. If you are a traditional Jew, it’s a matter of faith.

“I find that people who say they don’t believe in anything yet at the same time believe in some things, are paradoxical,” he says. “But I don’t argue with them. There are too many other things to worry about.”

One of the worrisome facts he and other physicians and scientists are up against is attracting funds to support their research. “We have to be the best to stay alive,” he says. “Funding has never been lower. You have to be on top; constantly developing novel and innovative ideas and putting them into action.”

It is suggested that Levi exudes an aura of perpetual calm. “I don’t know whether I’m calm,” Levi smiles, “but I am controlled — unless someone pushes my buttons.”

As the clock ticks off the minutes, Levi leans forward. “Don’t you want to know about my dreams?” he inquires impishly. Is he on the verge of a new discovery that will save or prolong thousands of lives?

It turns out that Levi’s grandest dream — fostering a spirit of tolerance within the Jewish community — is as miraculous as any scientific cure.

“I want to find a way to unite the Denver Jewish community,” he says. “Regardless of whether you are a non-believer, Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist or Orthodox, we need to get together on common ground.

“This is very important, not only in Denver but nationally and throughout the world. We need to work on common causes, not what divides us.

“I don’t care about differences: whether you drive or don’t drive on Shabbat; what time Shabbat is over or not over; when you say Havdalah or don’t say Havdalah.”

Levi also advocates for equal rights and opportunities for women and has participated in racial and ethnic diversity programs.

For him, the guiding principle is empirically clear: No human being is superior to another.

Levi ensures that nothing he says will come as a surprise to the members of EDOS, an Orthodox shul.

“They already know how I feel,” he assures, estimating that many EDOS congregants agree with him.

“Yes, there are extremists in every group,” Levi says. “I think Orthodoxy has a negative label because certain elements are sexist — or intolerant, which some are.”

He stresses that women comprise half of the EDOS board.

During Levi’s productive tenure at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas from 1984-2002 (minus a few years at the University of Zurich Physiological Institute), he was the founding president of an Orthodox synagogue.

Active in the mainstream community, he fought to lessen the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Judaism.

“In every community, there are people who try to create differences,” says Levi, who has been involved in the JCRC in Denver.

“That seems to be the definition of their survival.

“Many issues are non-negotiable for me, like equal rights for women,” he says.

“Also, I’m an unquestionable supporter of Israel. I’m really a frustrated Zionist. Why am I frustrated? Because I don’t live there!” he shrugs sadly.

Moshe Levi’s future is still being written. No doubt it will surpass 50 pages. We’ll wait for the book.

Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Andrea Jacobs

IJN Senior Writer |

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