by Naomi Vanek
Rabbi Joseph Levine was the thirteenth child of immigrant parents from Russia. He grew up in a traditional home in Pennsylvania. As a young man, however, he came under the influence of Rabbi Stephen S. Wise, who represented for him an American rabbi, living out his ancient heritage in a modern democratic nation. America was a marvel to my father and its heroes were real to him. Rabbi Wise encouraged his ambition to become a rabbi.
When the Jewish community of Texarkana asked him to be their rabbi in the 1950s, it was a marriage made in heaven. They were becoming more open and American, including developing relationships with the Christians of Texarkana. My father reached out to all, and they welcomed him in turn. The Jewish and Christian groups met in synagogues and churches, shared ritual and symbolism, and learned the value of each other’s traditions without fear.
The congregation of Mount Sinai respected and admired his efforts; they felt him to be a spiritual figure. They loved and cared for him when he was old. This was the place that my father could call home for the last twenty-five years, the most fulfilling, of his career.
My father had the capacity which only truly religious people had – a sense of being a child of God, delighting in the simplest of gifts. When, in his elder years, I drove him to the supermarket, we met people whom he knew and he introduced me with pride. This was his family.
The Talmud suggests one may join eternal life in one moment. If there is truth in that saying, then my stay in Texarkana with my father in his last years was that moment. I knew that Texarkana had found its rabbi, and I, my father.
I am very happy to have dedicated the Presidential Lobby at the Academy to my father’s memory. He would appreciate the kind of outreach and openness that the Academy represents.