Where do you start when you talk about Robert Levine?
With his 93 trips to Israel? (That’s 93. As in nearly one hundred. As in that’s amazing.) With his memory of listening to the declaration of Israel’s birth in 1948? With his nearly lifelong connection with Young Judaea? With his half-century connection to Teaneck? With his deep devotion to the Jewish National Fund, and his leadership role there? With his bone-and-muscle-deep connection to Israeli dance? With his devotion to his synagogue, Congregation Beth Sholom, whose history he knows intimately, and whose honoree he will be next week? With his love for his wife, Helen, and their children and grandchildren, with whom he has shared so many adventures?
The best way to tell them probably is to start in the beginning, in Brooklyn, in Sheepshead Bay. Mr. Levine doesn’t want to say exactly when that beginning was, “but you can say I’m in my 80s,” he said. “I go to at least two or three meetings a week. People who don’t know my age think I’m a dynamic guy. When they do know my age, they say, ‘Are you sure you should be doing that much?’” And yes, he’s sure, and no, when you look at him, you have no idea how old he is. So let’s say that the story began somewhere in the early 1930s.
His parents, Julius and Teresa, were born in eastern Europe but came to this country as small children. They spoke English most of the time; “Yiddish was their secret language, and I never learned it,” Mr. Levine said ruefully. “I never got in on the secret.”
His father was a CPA, and both parents were active in their local Orthodox shul, Congregation Pri Eitz Chaim on Ocean Avenue. “My father was president of the shul and the local ZOA chapter and the chairman of Israel Bonds, and my mother was president of the sisterhood and the local chapters of the American Jewish Congress and Hadassah. They were both always going to meetings, which affected us kids. It taught us about being out in the community.”
It was a happy childhood. “TV wasn’t invented yet, but I remember listening to the radio. There were so many great radio programs! I particularly remember the Lone Ranger. We sat and listened and looked at the radio dial. It was a wonderful time.”
Bob was an active child with a wide range of interests, which included baseball. He went to public school and then to an afterschool Talmud Torah class.
“We went to synagogue every week. I was the second baseman for my school baseball team. Practice was during the week, but the games were on Saturday morning. I was supposed to go to junior congregation every week, which I did — until baseball season.
“I would put my baseball uniform on under my good clothes, go to the schoolyard, take off my good clothes, hang them on the fence, and then go play. We would finish, and then I would go back to shul. My parents would be at shul, but not at junior congregation, and the season wasn’t that long. I would make up stories about where I was for practice. I got away with it.
“The problem, though, was that every week, they would take attendance and then send a postcard saying that I had not been at junior congregation, and they hoped that everything was okay. I would wait for the postman on Monday morning and steal the cards. But the fifth week, the mailman was late, and I had to go to school. So the postcard arrived, and my mother saw it. I knew the jig was up.
“My parents confronted me, and my father was so angry. We had to see the rabbi the next Sunday morning. The rabbi said, ‘Mr. Levine, please leave the room and let me talk to Bob.’
“The rabbi — his name was Seymour Turk — knew that I had a reasonably good voice, and that I knew all the prayers. He said, ‘You have so much talent, Bob. You have to teach the kids to lead services. Baseball is important, but this is even more important.’
“He was very smart. He made this an opportunity to do something even bigger than second base. By the time he was finished, he had me convinced.” His father had been furious, but by the time the rabbi called him back into the room and told him about his son’s new responsibilities, “he walked out thinking that his son was wonderful and everything was great.
“And it changed my life,” Mr. Levine said. “I became the kids’ teacher, and I taught them to daven morning services. The rabbi really did need someone to do it, and I did have that talent. He was the greatest psychologist I ever met.
“I was probably 10 or 11. Leading services and teaching people how to lead them made me a leader.”
His older brother and younger sister learned to be leaders too, he added. “My sister made aliyah, and my brother turned out to be a rabbi.” His sister, Rhoda, married a Reconstructionist rabbi, Jack Cohen, who headed the Society for the Advancement of Judaism until they made aliyah. “He became the head of the Hillel Foundation at Hebrew University and did amazing things there, and my sister was the Perle Mesta” — the legendary hostess — “of Israel. They had three children, who all stayed in Israel, and the family has grown to more than 30 people.
“My brother, Richard Levine, became a Reform rabbi; he was going to be an accountant and was in his final year at Wharton” but his future father-in-law, Rabbi Roland Gittelson, a World War II Army chaplain with stories of his own, helped him realize the obvious truth — his passion was for Jewish life. Richard Levine died last year; Rhoda Levine Cohen, at 92, lives in Jerusalem, surrounded by family.
Back in Brooklyn, Bob Levine went to Hebrew high school at the East Midwood Jewish Center, where his mother’s brother, Sam Rothstein, had been the first national president of its then brand-new youth group, USY. “I had yichus there,” Mr. Levine said. It also was his first foray into the Conservative world.
In 1947, he remembers, “I was with my family. The five of us sat by the radio, listening to the vote.” That was the vote the United Nations took on the partition of Palestine, part of which permitted the creation of the State of Israel. “We each had a tally sheet in front of us.
“We didn’t know if the vote would pass. We were scared that it wouldn’t.
“Anti-Semitism still was alive. We were the only Jewish family on our block.” There were many other Jews not far away, but not right there. “It wasn’t a good choice of a place to build a house,” he said.
“There was a Catholic church two blocks away. I played with the kids on the block every day. They were my friends. But when I came home from Hebrew school, they yelled ‘Christ killer’ and grabbed my books. I went home crying. And then I washed my face and went out and played with them.”
This didn’t happen too many times, though. “Then I never carried the book again. I memorized everything instead. These were my friends, and except for this one issue, we were fine.”
So they didn’t know how their neighbors would react if the state of Israel was voted into existence. “We were alone at home, the five of us. When the vote was being tallied, and we saw that we got the majority, we all screamed and ran outside and started to dance a hora in the street, the three of us kids. The neighbors stared out at us as if we were crazy, but we didn’t care. Some people came out — my quote unquote friends — and they said, ‘What are you doing?’ and I said, ‘The Jewish people now have a Jewish homeland, and we are very excited about it,’ and they didn’t really care one way or the other. It wasn’t their issue.
“So we decided to walk a few blocks to where the other Jewish families lived. People were in the street outside, and we went from one crowd to another, doing a hora. It was such an emotional night for us!
“I will never forget that moment, seeing that little jot on the piece of paper, one more than half of the votes. My hand just trembled. It’s hard to describe what it was like, listening to the radio. It’s a moment that only people who lived at that time can appreciate.
“My children can’t understand it, because for them there always has been an Israel. They didn’t live through the Holocaust — and thank God for that — but it is something that only someone in his 80s can appreciate.”
Meanwhile, Bob Levine’s Jewish organizational life had continued. He went to Hebrew high school two nights a week and on Sundays, and he became involved with a performance group. Much of organized Jewish life involves personal connections, and Mr. Levine’s network already was vast. A friend, active in Young Judaea, started a summer camp, Tel Yehuda in New Hampshire, and recruited Mr. Levine to be rosh gan — head of its farm. “I said, ‘I’m a New York City boy!’ He said, ‘We have a local farmer who will plant the crops.’” His job was to supervise the ongoing maintenance — and also to run the chag habikorim festival when the crops were harvested.
“Meanwhile I was learning folk dancing, Israeli folk songs, Jewish history, and Zionism.” He had a good voice, and he loved to dance. Back in Brooklyn during the school year, he was asked to establish and lead clubs for Young Judaea.
After he graduated from high school, Mr. Levine continued to work with Young Judaea. He enrolled at NYU and studied accounting and then went to law school — he still works at his Manhattan firm — but “my real activity was leading Young Judaea clubs, and eventually I became a trainer of club leaders, and then the area director of 60 clubs in Brooklyn. I would teach them songs, dances, educational stuff. I loved it. It was great.”
After two summers at camp, Mr. Levine was asked “to be a counselor on the first Young Judaea mission to Israel.” It was 1951.
“I was the co-leader of the first teenage tour to Israel,” he said.
“There is a picture in Hadassah magazine of our group boarding a Constellation airplane. It was a four-engine propeller-driven plane, and there was no gangway. They rolled over a staircase.
“The trip took four days. We flew first from New York to Boston, from Boston to Labrador, from Labrador to refuel in Greenland, and to Iceland, and then to Paris, to Rome, to Athens, to Tel Aviv.
“When we left Iceland, the pilot gets on the intercom and says, ‘Some of you might see that there is only one engine on the right side of the plane. There used to be two. We lost one. But I don’t want you to be concerned. We can fly on just one engine.’
“We landed in Ireland, and we were told that it would take another day, because they’d have to fly over another engine to replace the one we lost.
“This was all group-binding,” he added.
The group was “17 kids and two leaders” — he was 22, barely more than a kid himself — “and we spent our time with the tzofim, Israeli scouts, in camps with them in Abu Ghosh. The rest of the time we spent in home hospitality.
“When you got to the airport, after you cleared customs, they gave you a ration book. Food was very short then. Every Israeli had a ration book, and tourists needed them too. I said that we will never use the coupons ourselves, because we will always have meals served to us, so we would give our coupons to our hostesses for home hospitality.”
He tells the story of what happened next.
“The first Shabbat we were in Jerusalem, we visited a former Young Judea director who made aliyah from Brooklyn, who told me that I had to bring the kids to her house. She had married a wealthy dentist, and they had a beautiful home.
“We had slept on the floor of a school building on Friday night, and we decided to walk to her house. It was not very nearby, and it was a very hot day. We were walking through the streets of Jerusalem, perspiring.
“She brings us into the living room of the house, an old stone Arab mansion. It was all very cool inside. She sees what we look like, and she gets a pitcher of ice water from the refrigerator and puts it on the big round glass coffee table in the middle of the living room. She puts out paper cups.
“The kids are all looking at the pitcher of water, and they can’t move. They are petrified, like stone. They are looking in amazement, watching the droplets of water condensing on the outside of the pitcher. They are watching the droplets. No one is saying anything. No one is doing anything.
“And then the first kid takes a handkerchief out of his pocket and sops up the droplets and he puts it on his face. And she looks at us and says, ‘Doesn’t anybody want any water’ and still no one can move. They all still were afraid of wasting it. Eventually she had to get up and pour it.
“The meaning of water in a desert country came through as an object lesson. It was so meaningful, those drops of water. Everything was in the prism of a droplet of water condensing on the outside of a pitcher.”
Israel was still very young then. Many of the new immigrants still lived in ma’abarot — refugee camps. “They lived in aluminum huts, and the sun would be beating down on the aluminum,” Mr. Levine said. “It was like a scene in a movie — I am panning around the ma’abarah, and I don’t see anything, not a person, not a soul. And then suddenly the camera gets to a huge tree, and every person from that ma’abarah was sitting in the shade of that tree.
“One green tree can mean everything.”
Out of the students on that trip, four became rabbis and others became day-school teachers.
“I didn’t get back to Israel again until 1968,” he said. “That was 17 years later.” It was that trip, when he saw how JNF had helped the country turn from desert to arable land, that he developed his relationship with the organization.
“If people can plant a forest in the middle of the desert, the least I can do is mobilize people to raise money to plant more trees,” he said.
He has raised a great deal of money for it.
His other main contribution to JNF, which he has served as a board member for many years, is to increase lay participation. JNF began as an umbrella group, whose members were not people but other groups. Mr. Levine’s way into it was through the ZOA, another organization to which he belonged. His strong feeling that the JNF’s own mission was underfunded and underserved because its board members, by definition, put another organization’s needs over JNF’s, led to some bureaucratic infighting and eventual change.
Many of Mr. Levine’s trips to Israel have been for the JNF, and his bird’s-eye view of the country’s greening and its extraordinarily ingenious approaches to the vital question of water make for many more stories.
Bob and Helen Levine moved to Teaneck in 1961. Helen Belsenbaum Levine grew up Conservative, and although Bob’s childhood shul was Orthodox, many of his ties were in the Conservative world (as well as in Reform and Orthodox circles). They decided they wanted a Conservative community, and drew a circle around Congregation Beth Sholom.
He’s been active there for half a century now; he’s a font of otherwise barely known institutional history. He’s a three-time shul president and now is a life member of both the executive board and the regular one. And not surprisingly, “I formed a Young Judaea club there, and also brought in Israeli dancing.”
Bob and Helen Levine brought up their three daughters, Alisa, Ayelet, and Ilana, in Teaneck. Alisa is now a psychologist, Ayelet is a lawyer, and Ilana is an actress. The Levines have five grandchildren, Jonathan, Sara, Maxine, Georgia, and Caleb. The mutual adoration between the grandparents and their grandchildren radiates from the many photographs that beam around their house.
Mr. Levine also is chair of the board of the Israeli dance institute, which promotes Israeli dance and organizes an annual dance festival at Lincoln Center in Manhattan. Dance, of course, has been a passion he developed early and has retained. Now, the institute also has given him one of his favorite stories.
Through a rabbi in Albany who actively promoted Israeli dance, Mr. Levine met another man, who taught it there. “As chair of the board, I also emcee the show at Lincoln Center, and every year I would see the same guy from Albany,” Mr. Levine said. “We became somewhat friendly, and last year I got a call from the rabbi saying that they were honoring this guy, and asking me if I’d present the award to him.
“Helen, my wife, said, ‘Are you crazy? You will make a three-hour drive to give him an award? It’s crazy!’ I said that I know it’s crazy, but I have a responsibility. She says don’t do it. So I think about it.”
Still indecisive, he called the awardee’s wife to get more information about him, and learned that he’d gone to camp in New Hampshire. When he found out that the camp had been Tel Yehuda, he said he’d go. He’d been at the camp during its first two summers, remember, and he felt a great loyalty to its campers.
“The next night I get a phone call from this guy’s wife. She’s hysterical. She asks me my Hebrew name, and when I tell her it’s Baruch, she screams so loudly I think she’ll collapse.” Their synagogue had been having a book sale, and they decided to give away some of the books they never looked at any more. “ ‘I pull a book off the shelf, modern Hebrew literature, and my husband says that he can’t give that one away. There’s an inscription in the book. It was given to me by my camp counselor.’
“She opens it and it says to Chaim Cohen, a wonderful camper who I know will be a credit to the camp and to the Jewish people, and it was signed Baruch Levine,” Mr. Levine — Baruch — continued.
“I said, ‘Don’t say anything about this. Just do me a favor. Just bring the book to the dinner.”
The story seems to be drawing to a happy — and obvious — conclusion, and yes it will, but first there’s more.
“She brings the book and gives it to me, and I put an inscription in it and hide it in the lectern,” Mr. Levine said. “At the table, I ask him where he learned to dance, he says Young Judaea, and he tells me about his friends from camp, including a number of them who went to Israel in 1951. He wanted to go, he said, but his mother wouldn’t let him.
“I asked him if he was in touch with any of those kids still, and he said yes, just two weeks ago he had lunch with one of them, and she gave him a picture from the staircase of the plane.
“He had that picture in his wallet. I was in that picture.
“The truth is stranger than fiction.
“Can it really happen that I would choose to go to Albany to give this man a book, and he has a picture of me in his wallet and doesn’t know it?
“My life is remarkable and I am blessed by it.”