Shirley Levine, a leader in Jewish education who founded Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School in Northridge, the first non-denominational Jewish community day school in Los Angeles, died on Jan. 9. She was 80.
“She was an incredible visionary and the impact she had on Jewish day schools here and across the country is astounding,” said Betty Winn, Heschel’s current head of school. “It’s the end of an era.”
Levine, who served as founding head of school at Heschel for 31 years before retiring in 2003, was one of the first to blend Jewish and secular studies, and believed Jewish learning should be experiential and not contained to the classroom. She placed particular importance on connecting lessons to social action. Moreover, she mentored teachers, helping them inside and outside the classroom, guiding them through their careers. “She saved my life,” said Pam Kleinman, vice principal of student support services at Stephen S. Wise Elementary School, who worked previously as a teacher at Heschel. “Not only was she a leader in academics and teaching, she took a great deal of interest in the individuals who worked under her and she saw potential in people when they didn’t see it in themselves.”
Rabbi Jan Goldstein, the school’s first rabbi-in-residence, quoted Heschel when she considered Levine: “Build your life as if it were a work of art.”
“Shirley was such an example of what that quote [means],” Goldstein said.
In 1971, a group of parents in the San Fernando Valley, under the leadership of Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Mark and Ellie Lainer, sought to establish a community Jewish day school. The group turned to Levine, then a full-time consultant with Los Angeles Unified School District, for advice.
“It soon became clear that Shirley was the person to head up the school,” Mark Lainer said in a 2003 interview with The Journal.
Heschel opened a year later, in fall 1972, with kindergartens at Valley Beth Shalom, Stephen S. Wise and Adat Ari El. In 1979, Heschel established its permanent three-acre campus in Northridge.
Under Levine, Heschel’s curriculum effectively blended Jewish and secular studies—common nowadays, but revolutionary at the time.
“Judaism was intertwined into the secular studies so the Judaics became part of the program,” said Larry Kligman, assistant head of school, who will become Heschel’s head of school in 2013. “It wasn’t an island, it was threaded inside the curriculum, so when you were leaning about anything, there was a Jewish core to it.”
Heschel’s model for blending secular and Jewish learning was effective, and the school grew quickly. In 1994, Levin helped four families found Heschel West Day School, now Ilan Ramon Day School, in the Conejo Valley.
Levine grew up in a labor Zionist family with immigrant parents. As a young girl in Cleveland and then Los Angeles, she attended cheder, where she learned to read and write Yiddish. Levine’s parents instilled in their children a deep respect for the dignity of every human being and a love of learning.
Her heart was firmly in teaching, said Lee Shaw, Levine’s sister.
“When you saw her with your students, you saw that this was something she was made to do,” said Shaw, who worked as a kindergarten teacher at Heschel for 35 years. Although no cause of death was specified, family and friends said Levine had suffered a stroke last year.
Still, “even in her illness, she got things done. She was able to communicate her ideas and touch people’s lives,” Kleinman said. Ultimately, “she was a force that never weakened.”
Levine is survived by her husband, Arnold; children, Mark (Rosy), Darren and Marci (Greg) Egemo; six grandchildren; sister, Lee (Arthur) Shaw; and nieces and nephews.
Funeral services were held on Jan. 12 at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries’ Hollywood Hills location. The family has requested that donations be made to Stop Cancer: The Marni Fund (stopcancer.org/Main/default/t-themarnifund.aspx).