October 20, 2005
Levelers Make for Moving Havurah
It was 1974, and gas had soared to $1.29 a gallon. Tens of thousands of educated, white-collar Americans imagined that they were truckers, squawking "breaker, breaker" and "10-4" into their CB radios, adopting handles like "Rubber Duck." Super-sized recreational vehicles filled the roads. At the North Valley Jewish Community Center (JCC) in Granada Hills, a group of young parents caught the bug. The North Valley JCC is struggling to stay alive and the parents are not so young anymore, but the club is going strong.
"You have to be a real mensch to hang out with us," said Freya Teplinsky, corresponding secretary of Lovin' Levelers, an all-Jewish RV club with 80 members from the Valley, Ventura County, the Westside and the Inland Empire. Most are in their 60s.
"We're not so much about the rigs as about the socializing," Teplinsky said. "Most of us are not here to show off our million-dollar RVs. We're more like a big havurah."
In the beginning, the Levelers traveled with little pop-up campers and hauled tents and sleeping bags. Like truckers, they called their vehicles "rigs." The years have been good, and now the term "rig" is appropriate. Many of the RVs are so big that the drivers must use cameras rather than mirrors to see what's approaching from behind. Rick and Dianna Rice of Simi Valley started off in 1976 with a $15,000 23-foot RV. Today, they pilot a 36-footer for which they paid more than $100,000.
The Journal caught up with Lovin' Levelers on a Saturday afternoon in August, meeting them at Ventura RV Resort near the Ventura County Fairgrounds, where 28 of the members and six prospective members had gathered for the annual fair. The Levelers weren't hard to find. An Israeli flag in front of Brenda and Arnie Rich's new rig marked the spot.
Howard Brody, a retired high school counselor, and his wife, Shari, a retired teacher, welcomed us into their 32-foot Southwind, worth about $106,000 when new, far from the top end among the Levelers. Inside, it smelled like a bakery.
"Club members call ourselves 'meals on wheels,'" Howard Brody said. "Our main activity is eating."
Teplinsky buzzed into the campgrounds on her motorbike and rattled off a partial list of upcoming destinations: Palm Desert, Pechanga Indian Casino, Balboa Island, San Francisco, Yosemite.
"It doesn't really matter where we go," said Brenda Rich, the club's treasurer. "We get together because we enjoy each other's company."
Rich and her husband, Arnie, own one of the bigger and fancier rigs in the group, a 36-foot gray-and-burgundy Country Coach Inspire. They had just traded down a month earlier -- their 40-foot Monaco was too big for some national parks. All the cabinetry in the Inspire is cherrywood, and the mammoth refrigerator-freezer is stainless steel. The Inspire still had the new-RV smell. With the press of a button, the Riches extended the sides to widen the rig to the width of a cruise ship. Fellow Leveler Gil Stark said, "This isn't a rig -- it's a palace."
Stark took us through his own RV, a 24-foot Terry Trailer.
"Smallest rig in the park," he said. "But no one in the club looks down on us because we have a little rig."
Next to the Starks' W.C., a sign said, "Bless This Lousy Trailer." The tiny bed bespoke a truly close relationship. Stark and his wife, Sheila, threw a 50th anniversary party for themselves at the Odyssey in Granada Hills last July. They had 107 guests, 50 of them Levelers.
"They're like family," Gil Stark said.
"They're our closest friends," Sheila Stark added.
Gil Stark said the Levelers include a doctor, two lawyers, an architect and several engineers, including himself, "but it's a very haimish group."
Who came up with the club's name is now lost in the cobwebs of time. All anyone can recall is that the club absorbed two or three earlier clubs with names like North Valley Jewish Community Center Camping Club and then voted in favor of their present name. "Leveler" is a reference to the fact that RV refrigerators won't work unless the rigs are perfectly level.
Most Levelers estimated their gas mileage at 7 or 8 miles per gallon. With gas hovering at about $3 a gallon, was this a problem?
"Nah," Brenda Rich said. "Not when you consider that a hotel is $200 a night."
Every month, Lovin' Levelers meets after a dinner at Brent's Deli in Northridge to plan out 12 weekends a year to campgrounds within a few hours' drive of Los Angeles, as well as two longer trips a year to more distant points.
From Nov. 4-6, you'll find them in Danish country as they visit Solvang. They'll line up their gleaming, shiny RVs -- along with the Starks' -- at Flying Flags RV Resort and Campground on Friday night in Buellton. They'll recite Shabbat blessings over chocolate-chip challah, and they'll sing traditional Jewish melodies.
Gabe Albala said he met his future wife, Roz, through Lovin' Levelers. They had camped together with previous spouses, and then became a couple after both were widowed.
"We were in a campground near Gorman, near the Grapevine," he said. "We all took a hike. First thing, Roz and I got lost together."
He proposed on her 70th birthday, in 1998.
"We Sephardim are very romantic," he said.
They were married the following year.
Gil Stark talked of the time the Levelers went to the "Follies," a show in Palm Springs put on mostly by and for senior citizens. A comedian asked who the Levelers were, and they told him.
"Oh," he said. "Jewish trailer trash."
Carol Warren of Camarillo and her husband, Darryl Sobelman, were among the three couples who were checking out the Levelers in Ventura. Warren had spotted an item on the Levelers in her temple bulletin. "I never would have believed there were Jewish RVers," she said.
At the clubhouse, it was karaoke night. But the Levelers had other plans. From the club's 10-page Havdalah songster, Allan Teplinsky led the Levelers through "Shabbat Shalom" and "Shavuah Tov." They sang enthusiastically, with passion and with heart. The prospective new members sang along.
Participants rose for the Motzi and then blessed a large braided candle that the group had made. They passed a spice box from person to person. They linked arms and swayed and sang, "Eliyahu Hanavi." Everyone knew the words.
"It all started with the children," Freya Teplinsky said. "When they were little, we wanted to do Shabbat, Havdalah and Chanukah -- the warm, fuzzy stuff. Many of us are grandparents now, and we're not exactly camping in tents anymore, but the Jewish part never changed."
Group members adjourned to a side room, where the Levelers had set up a dessert bar. Volunteers served brownies, cookies, root beer floats and five kinds of ice cream.
And quickly, the good news spread: Three new couples had joined. One of them had a 42-foot-long RV, a tall and visually arresting black-and-gray Travel Supreme diesel "pusher" model, worth maybe $350,000. By the end of the evening, the couples were Lovin' Levelers.
If they are like the others, they'll likely be Levelers for life.
For more information, call Freya Teplinsky at (818) 368-3471 or e-mail to email@example.com. Annual dues are $36 per year per couple or $18 per person plus monthly trip costs.