Before and after Mississippi, who is Allan Levine?
A Reform rabbi, a loving husband and father and later a grandfather, Allan Levine has been a committed and active contributor to the good of the community wherever he has found himself – so long as he has been able to campaign. At this writing (spring 2014), Allan is retired and living quietly at home in Rehovot, Israel, with his wife of many years, Suzy. The songs he likes best to sing are still the protest songs of the 1960s.
What makes someone a Freedom Rider? What impels someone to make that commitment and risk life and limb in pursuit of justice for all?
Surely every person who volunteered in Mississippi in the 1960s had their own life story. In the case of Rabbi Allan Levine, a personal contribution to the struggle for full civil rights for African-Americans was but one aspect of a life devoted to the pursuit of social justice. Yet now in his later years, it is perhaps the chapter he recalls most nostalgically. Deep change was really wrought there, back then – and every person who participated was an important component of that change.
Integration, freedom rides and protest marches: from Rochester, NY to Alabama and Mississippi
Active in youth work and also in civil rights efforts after his ordination as a Reform rabbi, Allan Levine was the motivating force in bringing racial integration to the Irondequoit School System in Rochester, NY where he moved with his family in 1962 to become a congregational rabbi.
A board member of the local Jewish Day School, he was also on the board of the Rochester branch of the NAACP and was active with CORE. He was one of the founders and a board member of the Sol Alinsky support group known as Friends of FIGHT (which later merged into Metro-Act of Rochester, a not-for-profit housing advocacy group). In 1962 Rabbi Levine led a sit-in at Rochester Police Headquarters in a struggle against police brutality and in 1963 was Associate Editor for urban affairs for the Rochester Independent, a civil rights newspaper. He was active in interreligious affairs and organizer of a joint study initiative with Protestant and Catholic groups in Rochester. He served as president of the Rochester Board of Rabbis and was co-chairman of the Rochester Jewish Community Council on Soviet Anti-Semitism.
The activist rabbi from Rochester became one of the original Freedom Riders and organizer of the first Clergy Freedom Ride under the aegis of CORE and James Farmer. He volunteered with CORE and the NAACP beginning in 1961, traveling to the south and taking training in nonviolent civil disobedience at Tougaloo College in Mississippi, where he first met Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. The group that trained together in Tougaloo was subsequently split in two: One group went to Washington, DC to talk with President John F. Kennedy, and Rabbi Levine’s group of clergy was sent by Dr. King to the airport at Jackson, Mississippi to help integrate the restaurant there.
The action at the airport in Jackson resulted in arrests. Rabbi Levine was jailed and sentenced to three months in prison. The sentence was overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Rabbi Levine was active in voter registration in various locations in the south during the early 1960s. On several occasions, the Ku Klux Klan attempted to assassinate him, but he was not deflected from his course. He marched in Washington and Tallahassee. He was chaplain to the civil rights workers in Ruleville, Mississippi and marched in Montgomery and Selma, Alabama, in 1965.
In Rochester, too, where the family moved in 1962, Rabbi Levine found himself working for racial justice. The same year he arrived there, a gas station attendant named Rufus Fairwell was beaten up by police without cause as he was closing up the gas station for the night. Rabbi Levine heard about the arrest and went with a group to the police station to aid Mr. Fairwell and subsequently organized a protest. Eventually exonerated of any offense, Mr. Fairwell later used the compensation awarded him in a lawsuit to buy the gas station and become his own boss.
When Dr. King addressed the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in the summer of 1963, Rabbi Levine joined other Rochester community leaders in organizing a local delegation to travel to Washington to participate. On August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial, facing an audience estimated at a quarter of a million people of whom about three-quarters were black, Dr. King repeatedly invoked the mantra that was to inspire millions and remain associated with him forever: I have a dream. Among those who were there, and heard, and would never forget, were the rabbi from Rochester, NY and his then-pregnant wife and their two young children.
Rabbinical ordination and first years in Israel
Rabbi Allan Levine was born in Montreal, Canada in 1932 and graduated from McGill University in 1953. Meantime, in 1947-48 he was working in Montreal for the Haganah, collecting shipments to be sent to help the fledgling Jewish national homeland survive its birth pangs. He was poised to travel there to fight himself when the war ended.
In 1953, he began studying to become a rabbi at the Reform Judaism rabbinical school at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. Two years later, he went to Israel for a year. Anxious to improve his Hebrew, he attended and graduated from Ulpan Etzion in Jerusalem and then studied at Hebrew University under a Klausner Fellowhip of the Canadian Friends of Hebrew University. During his time at Ulpan Eztion he met his wife, Suzanne, who had come to study there from Casablanca, Morocco. They were married in Jerusalem in 1956.
Working as a rabbi in the Reform (later Progressive) Judaism movement
In 1959, Rabbi Levine authored the monograph “An American Jewish Bibliography,” published by the American Jewish Archives just as the author was being ordained. He then served as Hillel Counselor at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio – the first of many stints as rabbinic advisor and youth director in various programs of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (today the Union of Reform Judaism).
Rabbi Levine’s first pulpit was in Bradford, Pennsylvania, where he also served as juvenile court judge and as chairman of the Mayor’s Committee on Juvenile Problems. In addition, Rabbi Levine served as Jewish Chaplain at Warren State Hospital in Pennsylvania.
In 1962 Rabbi Levine moved to Rochester, New York, to be rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Irondequoit. He was there for eight years till his Aliya to Israel, and it was during his time in Rochester that he volunteered to travel to the south and become a civil rights volunteer.
In 1966 and 1968, he was director of the NFTY (National Federation of Temple Youth) Mitzvah Corps in Upper Nazareth and at Ben Shemen Youth Village. Mitzvah Corps was a summer community service program in Israel for American Jewish teenagers.
Rabbi Levine was on the Torah Corps faculty at Warwick for the summers of 1967 and 1969. Beginning in 1965, he also served as the Rabbinic Advisor to NELFTY (North Eastern Lakes Federation of Temple Youth).
Aliyah to Israel
In 1970, Rabbi Allan Levine moved with his family to Israel, to become a Consultant on Jewish Education and Family Counselor at the Ben Shemen Youth Village. He was sent and appointed by Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath to work at Ben Shemen Youth Village as Rabbi of the village to which were added the roles of social worker, member of the administration of the village, organizer of joint meetings and activities between Arab youth from Jerusalem and Jewish youth from Ben Shemen, and acting as public relations director for the village.
At the same time Rabbi Levine’s assignment was to assume responsibility for the programs of the NFTY Mitzvah Corps in Israel in which (in the program’s original format) American youngsters spent the summer at Ben Shemen Youth Village where they were joined by Israeli youth in work, study and social activities.
In 1973, Rabbi Levine left Ben Shemen when he was appointed to work full time for NFTY in Israel under Rabbi Stephen Schafer. Thereafter Rabbi Levine devoted himself to NFTY in Israel together with Rabbi Henry Skirball, developing and running study and community service programs, short- and long-term, for American Jewish young people in Israel.
Rabbi Levine was responsible – together with Rabbi Henry Skirball and with the very substantial and enthusiastic support of the late Rabbi Stephen Schafer and Rabbi Alexander Schindler – for the establishment of the Reform movement’s kibbutzim in Israel: Kibbutz Yahel (1977) and Kibbutz Lotan (1982), both in the southern Arava not far from Eilat. For many years Rabbi Levine travelled extensively to do fundraising for the two kibbutzim.
In 1987, Rabbi Levine suffered a stroke, which marked the end of his long years of service and activism and the beginning of a much quieter retirement.
Today his greatest pleasure and joy in life is to spend time with his family and to be surrounded by his children and his six wonderful grandchildren.