As you will read below Mike Levinson played a very special role in my life. It was my sad privilege to conduct his funeral:
When I met via Face Time with Marilyn, Joanie, Gary, Alan, Gail, Neil and Alec, Calvin and Caroline, Renee, Howard and Abby, the love of Mike that generated from each of them was precious, palpable and inspiring. The outpouring of affection moved me deeply but did not surprise me at all because I shared it.
When Mike Levinson arrived in my dorm room at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati 47 years ago, my rabbinical future was uncertain. INTERMET, the program in urban interfaith ministry to which I had applied had just rejected me, but Rabbi Richard S. Sternberger felt Temple Isaiah might consider taking a chance on me as their rabbinic intern anyway.
So Mike, as President of the congregation, traveled to Cincinnati to see for himself.
He asked very thoughtful questions, listened carefully and reflectively, and showed both excitement about and concern for the future of the fledgling congregation that he led.
I was very impressed.
So, I was overjoyed when Mike called me a few days later to invite me to fly out to Columbia to learn more about the congregation and for them to learn more about me.
Mike Levinson’s term of office ended as mine began, but I quickly learned that though he would not be president, he would definitely be present.
Throughout my years at Temple Isaiah, he was a wise, steady calming influence. And that has continued to be the case over all these years. As Rabbi Craig Axler, Temple Isaiah ‘s current and much beloved rabbi put it, Mike, was the congregation’s version of E. F. Hutton: When he talked, people listened. When controversy swirled, Mike had a way of calming the waters, keeping us from getting sidetracked, and bringing people together.
Michael Harris Levinson was born in Joplin, Missouri and moved to Jacksonville with his family after High School.
At the University of Florida he met Marilyn Marks, and the rest soon became history. Marilyn was 19 when they married. They moved to Bridgeport where Mike began his engineering career at GE and then to Frederick, Maryland where Mike did chemical biological research in the army. They came to Columbia in 1970.
I was single but with a serious girl friend when I arrived at Temple Isaiah, and I learned so much from observing the marital dynamic between Mike and Marilyn. They shared 58 years of love and devotion together, and served as models for the type of marriage Vickie and I have tried to create.
At the age of 52 Mike made a courageous career change. When I asked why, Mike explained he wanted to work for more than just a paycheck. So he went back to school to become a librarian. How many men in their fifties do you know who leave a corporate career to become librarians? I know only one: Mike Levinson.
With his usual good humor Mike deflected the jokes about, ’“How many ways are they teaching you to say, “Shhh!” and other light-hearted jibes.
To my sadness, Mike was too sick in November to travel to Temple Isaiah when I spoke there to inaugurate the celebration marking their 50th year as a congregation. But I was pleased I had the chance to tell everyone there the story of how Mike Levinson saved my career and help launch it on the path it has taken.
I was thrilled too, that though Mike and Marilyn could not be there, Joanie and Alan were.
It brought back memories of how Joanie gave up her room for me when I came to Columbia to interview for the first time. It brought back memories of how on that memorable occasion, six-year old Alan challenged me to a fight the second I walked through the door and how calmly, gently and skillfully Mike and Marilyn dealt with the unexpected greeting their precocious son accorded the prospective rabbi.
More importantly it was so wonderful to see how grown-up Joanie and Alan reflect the intelligence, thoughtfulness and kindness of their parents.
Without question, for the last 47 years, Mike Levinson represented everything I want to be: A fair, honest and thoughtful person, a loving and devoted husband, father and grandfather and a proud Jew.
If Mike represented so much that I continue to admire even though we have had only sporadic contact since I left Temple Isaiah in 1986, how much the more does he mean to his loving children and grandchildren and, of course, to Marilyn.
For all of them, Mike embodied wisdom, thoughtfulness, integrity and a wonderful sense of humor. He was famous for systematically weighing the pros and cons of various options when a decision about anything significant was at hand.
His ultimate career choice as a librarian was a perfect fit. It enabled him to combine his love for information, science and helping people. His courage in giving up a successful career and going back to school to pursue what Mike knew would be a more fulfilling path profoundly shaped the values and priorities of his children and grandchildren.
His grandchildren found their “Pop Pop” eternally young. He could talk, laugh and play with them at their level. He was the one who would suggest a hot dog stand for a birthday lunch or a spontaneous stop when they passed an ice cream parlor.
“Spontaneous” is a word his loved ones used frequently to describe Mike. It was the rare combination of spontaneity, systematic thoughtfulness and “his infinite wisdom and sweet and gentle patience” that made Mike who he was. He was, they recalled the type of person with whom you could sit in a room and just “appreciate the silence.”
Mike was already very ill last spring when he and Marilyn came to Joanie and Gary’s for Passover. But when Gary offered to let him lead the Seder Mike did so with enthusiasm and energy. How fitting … as Judaism was such an important part of his life!
Mike was 81 years old when he died, but his youthful spirit and inquiring mind made him seem much younger.
I will always be grateful that our lives intertwined, and I know his memory will endure for those who loved him and all who knew him as a blessing.