Mark C. Levy, prominent philanthropist and Jewish leader, died Feb. 18 at 88. Levy was involved with numerous Jewish communal, humanitarian, religious and cultural organizations, including the Skirball Cultural Center, MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger, Leo Baeck Temple, Hillel and the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ).
Born Jan. 15, 1926, in Pittsburgh, Penn., Levy and his family moved many times before settling in Los Angeles, where he graduated from Los Angeles High School. During World War II, at the age of 19, he served as a tank commander in the U.S. Army. Returning to Los Angeles after the war, Levy attended UCLA and embarked on a career as a builder and developer. He and Peachy (nee Kalsman) were married in 1949 and had three children. Levy also served in the Army during the Korean War.
Over the course of his life, Levy and his wife also developed a notable Judaica collection, beginning with their purchase of a 19th century Central European chanukiyah during their first trip to Israel, in 1959. They amassed a wide range of objects, with a focus on pre-war tzedakah boxes, chanukiyot — of which they collected hundreds — and objects made in Israel, including several from the Bezalel School of Art and Design. In 2008, the Skirball Cultural Center displayed more than 130 objects from the collection in the exhibition “Prisms of Jewish Life.”
Levy’s collecting expertise was pivotal during the mid-1980s planning for the Skirball’s expansion and move to its current home on Sepulveda Boulevard.
“We had given a title to what would be our core exhibit, ‘Jewish Life From Antiquity to America,’ ” said Uri Herscher, founding president and CEO of the Skirball. “Mark knew our collection … and saw that we were weak on the ‘America’ part.” So in 1985, Levy launched and chaired “Project Americana,” a nationwide search for objects representing Jewish-American life — including art, folk art, ceremonial objects and memorabilia.
Levy’s “remarkable leadership and hard work … made possible the Americana galleries of our core exhibit,” Herscher said. “Mark had a tremendous generosity of spirit and of philanthropy. … He was a builder of human relationships.”
Levy was among the first supporters of MAZON. Elected to the board in 1994, he became chair in 1996 and, on numerous committees, continued supporting MAZON initiatives for many years.
“Mark helped to lead the organization in meaningful and creative ways,” said Abby J. Leibman, president and CEO of MAZON. “He was a beloved and inspirational member of the board.”
Levy and his wife believed in the life-changing possibilities of Jewish camps and youth activities. Through the URJ, they created a scholarship fund that has helped thousands of West Coast youth attend URJ camps, youth events and Israel trips. The Levys also were instrumental in founding Camp Kalsman, which opened in 2007 and is the first Reform Jewish camp in Washington.
Along with Peachy Levy’s mother, Lee Kalsman, the Levys provided the funding to establish the Kalsman Institute on Judaism and Health at HUC-JIR’s L.A. campus. The institute provides pastoral education for future Reform leaders, and co-sponsors workshops and conferences on Jewish spirituality and health.
At Leo Baeck Temple (LBT), where Levy and his wife have been active members for many years, Levy was a leader “in every way a person can lead,” said Ken Chasen, LBT’s senior rabbi. Levy served as president, co-chair of numerous committees and events, and with his wife was a major donor to many temple projects.
At least 400 people attended the funeral for Levy at LBT on Feb. 22. In his eulogy, Chasen described Levy as a profoundly generous and loving man, calling him “a bracha machine.” Levy’s “vast legacy,” Chasen said, is proof “that a person can be defined entirely by his grateful soul, and the myriad wonders he can create because of it.”
In addition to his wife of 65 years, Levy is survived by his children, Richard (Dana), Jani (Bill) and John (Victoria); and his grandchildren, Alexandra, Kate (Evan), Jacob, Jeremy, Nathaniel and Abigail.