The Jewish community as well as the larger Los Angeles area has lost a giant in education in the passing this week of Shirley Levine. In an age where we debate how we gauge, appreciate and pay our educators, it is time to pause and celebrate one of the best that ever lived.
Shirley Levine was raised in Cleveland before moving with her family to Boyle Heights as a young girl. She grew up in a home where the Yiddish kinderschul philosophy held sway. Judaism was about values and dignity for each human being she learned. Each human being was to be treated with fairness and every life was to be met with respect. It would become the foundation of her approach to education, specifically within the larger framework of a Jewish education.
It was back in 1971 that Rabbi Harold Schulweis and Mark Lainer spearheaded a group of parents and community leaders in search of the right mix of educational know-how and humanism to head a new Jewish community day school for Los Angeles. They found it all and more in Shirley Levine. A master teacher in LA Unified for many years Shirley accepted the challenge to help found what would become the Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School. The truth is, if you or your family or friends have ever been connected to Adat Ari-El Day School, Stephen S. Wise Day School or VBS Day School, not to mention Heschel and what became Heschel West in Agoura, you have been touched by Shirley Levine. Heschel was there at the beginning, lead by this indomitable woman/visionary. In seeking a permanent home, Heschel spent time on each of those campuses before outgrowing the facilities. Eventually they would land at their permanent location at the corner of Devonshire and White Oak in Northridge. As Heschel left each institution Shirley and her staff and parents had so seeded that location with the benefits of day school education and a passion for learning that each organization created a day school on the heels of Heschel’s departure. The cornerstone of that impact was the woman herself, a force of nature who fought tenaciously for the rights of each child and helped create a generation of educators to meet those needs.
Having worked under her as an administrator, Rabbi-in-Residence, and teacher, I and countless others learned what individualization could do for our youngsters, how teaching to just one level failed to take into account the needs of each child. Shirley’s typical day began at 6 and she was more often than not still in her office at 10 p.m. every night if not later. She often said that she didn’t have enough Jewish knowledge to Head a Jewish day school but Rabbi Schulweis and others told her not to worry, ‘we will find support, you have the vision, you are the seer we need.’ The truth was, Shirey Levine inspired thousands of Jewish youth and their families with a Jewish and humanistic educational setting with its emphasis on values and social and ethical action. It was Heschel Day School at the forefront of student-led Tikkun Olam that first went into South Central LA to work alongside A PLACE CALLED HOME to support this important center in providing learning and art possibilities after school in a challenging neighborhood. Heschel kids who helped lead the march on City Hall to demand from our leaders ordinance against second hand smoke as well as challenging corporations to partner with charitable organizations. This was Shirley Levine’s vision. To inspire Jewish Youth to believe that, as Rabbi Heschel espoused—the teachings of the Torah were meaningless unless they created a more just and caring society. Such was Shirley’s philosophy, such was the life lead by this remarkable supernova of education.
She fashioned with her hands the visions of her heart. Our community was the beneficiary and will be for years to come.
Jan Goldstein served as the first community day school Rabbi-in-Residence in the nation in a role created by Shirley Levine. He is now a best-selling author.
Shirley Levine died on Monday, January 9. Her funeral will be Thursday, Jan. 12 at 1:30 at Mount Sinai Memorial Parks and Mortuaries, 5950 Forest Lawn Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90068.
For more on Shirley Levine, click this 2003 story.