Surviving Tsarist Russia
Raphael Levine was born sometime in August 1901, in Vilna, Lithuania, then part of the Russian Empire. Records of his birth did not survive, but he knew it was sometime in the middle of August, so he adopted the 15th as his birthday. Levine was the youngest of 12 children. His parents ran a stall in the open-air market where they sold eggs and bark collected by peasants. The family lived in a house with a thatched roof and a dirt floor.
As Jews, they were subject to the government- and church-sanctioned mob violence known as pogroms. One of Rabbi Levine’s earliest memories was hiding indoors while drunken peasants screamed, "Kill the Christ killers!" Easter and Christmas were particularly terrifying times for Jews. In 1905, Czarist police arrested his older brother, a local labor leader. Levine remembered the police searching their home and being threatened with arrest for his toy pistol. After his release, the brother moved to America. Levine and his parents followed in 1909 by way of England and Canada, joining the rest of the family in Duluth, Minnesota, in 1909.
Levine grew up in Duluth with Americanized nephews near his own age. They encouraged Levine to adopt an American name, "like any other Tom, Dick, and Harry" (Levine papers). He liked Harry and went through school as Ralph Harry Levine. In public school, caring teachers, like Miss Calverly, encouraged him to learn. This came as something of a shock since all his prior experiences with Christians had been negative. He attended Sapwin State Teachers College, then the University of Minnesota where he earned a B.A. and a law degree in 1926.
Becoming a Rabbi
Ralph H. Levine practiced law in Duluth and became president of the local Menorah Society. During the day, and evenings and weekends, he organized study groups and taught at the synagogue. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew, but found that he knew little about his faith and its history. What he learned fascinated him. He decided that the law was his avocation and that being a rabbi was his vocation. He enrolled at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati and completed a Bachelor of Hebrew Letters in 1932. He also reverted to his given name, Raphael, which means "God the Healer" (Levine papers). In 1929, he married Madeline Reinhart (1904-1985) and together they had a daughter, Lori.
During the Great Depression, there were few opportunities for rabbis in the U.S., so he got a posting to a synagogue in Liverpool, England. Madeline was unhappy with the assignment, but she and Lori accompanied him overseas. In Liverpool as a Liberal or Reform rabbi, Levine was shunned by his Orthodox and Conservative colleagues. Almost by default, he socialized with liberal Christians and Unitarians. Following the lead of the B'nai B'rith (Jewish fraternal and community service organization), he arranged brotherhood dinners to bring Christians and Jews together and to overcome prejudice between the two groups.
"I have always felt that if I had any mission as a rabbi, as a teacher of Judaism, as I understood it, it was to build bridges of understanding between all human beings of all races and all religions. I felt that was the mission of the Jew -- human brotherhood" (The Seattle Times, November 21, 1976).He became a popular (and free) speaker on the topic, "Why are Jews persecuted?" He served in Liverpool until 1938, when he was invited to serve the Liberal Jewish Synagogue in St. John's Wood in London. His duties included working with refugees from the Nazi repression of Jews and he learned from eyewitnesses the threat posed by Hitler and the Nazis. German bombs rained down on London during the Blitz of 1940 and Levine stood watch as a neighborhood fire guard and part-time fire warden. Fire wardens patrolled a designated neighborhood looking for bomb damage. Bombs destroyed Levine's synagogue one Sabbath and only because the cricket club across the street offered the congregation the use of its hall did the rabbi still have a job.
Elected in Seattle
At the outbreak of war in 1939, Levine sent Madeline and the two children (son David was born in England) to live with Madeline's mother in Portland. After two years alone, he missed his family and wanted to go home. He managed to get to the U.S. by plane and by ship through neutral Ireland and Portugal in September 1941. He arrived in New York so broke that he could not pay bag handlers. With money wired from his sister in Minnesota, he joined his family in Portland.
In Portland, Levine addressed groups about his experiences with refugees and in the Blitz. He caught the eye of a B'nai B'rith official who connected Levine with a job on a speaking tour of German communities in the Midwest where anti-Semitism was strong. With other Jews, he spoke to high school students, service clubs, and other non-Jewish groups on the topic, "I saw London bombed."
At the end of March 1942, he arrived in Seattle to address the Chamber of Commerce. His remarks were so well received that the audience gave Levine a standing ovation. He was soon visited by the president and vice president of Temple de Hirsch, a Reform Jewish congregation at 15th Avenue and Union Street. Rabbi Samuel Koch had been the rabbi since 1907 and was in failing health, so they were seeking a successor. They invited Levine to stay. Madeline Levine had graduated from University of Washington and Levine had heard for years about the beauty of the Pacific Northwest. Levine spoke before the congregation the following Friday, Passover. In an impromptu meeting following the service, the board unanimously appointed him as rabbi. Levine quipped, "I was elected by the Chamber of Commerce and the congregation merely ok'd it" (The Seattle Times, November 27, 1966).
The first marriage that Levine performed was between Samuel Stroum (First Citizen of 1988) and Altheia Diesenhaus. In his new post, Levine became aware of the nature of anti-Semitism in Seattle. Jews were excluded from membership in many clubs and golf courses and some neighborhoods prohibited Jews from buying homes there. When Levine was invited to join the Seattle Rotary, he was the group's third Jewish member. Seattle had a Round Table made up of clergy from various faiths, but Catholic Archbishop Gerald O'Shaunessy had withdrawn. Levine approached O'Shaunessy to ask him to rejoin the group. His Excellency declined, saying that the discussion of various faiths "confused the faithful." If people were interested in the Catholic faith, they could come to his cathedral and learn (Levine papers).
When Levine assumed his duties at Temple de Hirsch, the congregation consisted of about 350 members. The issue of Zionism threatened to split the congregation. Zionists advocated moving to Palestine and establish a Jewish homeland. Levine described himself as non-Zionist, preferring to regard Judaism as a religious community and he deplored the politicization of religion. Levine was able to deftly stress that the existence of several schools of thought on the topic need not divide their congregation. In 10 years, Temple de Hirsch grew to more than 1,000 members.
Organizer and Advocate
In 1944, Rabbi Levine was among a group of clergymen sent by the War Department to tour military installations in Alaska and the Aleutions to speak to troops about tolerance. This was done to blunt hate movements which had begun to develop among soldiers and which threatened military effectiveness.
That same year, Levine volunteered as a counselor at a Christian youth camp at Seabeck on Hood Canal. The experience sparked his wish for a similar program for Jewish youth. In 1945, he organized the Western Association of Reform Rabbis to provide some community among his widely scattered colleagues on the West Coast. He used this group to push the idea of a co-ed summer camp for Jewish youngsters. At first, he got a tepid response, but in the summer of 1947, he was able to stage the first Jewish Youth Conference at Lake Tahoe. In spite of lacking an organized program (Levine and the other leaders set the day's schedule every morning), the camp was a success. For the next four years, campers and counselors met at rented facilities. In 1953, Camp Ben Swig opened on 200 acres near Saratoga, California, as the permanent home for the program. Almost every summer, Levine staffed the youth camps.
The Levines' son David was born retarded and died at the age of 20 in the state institution at Buckley. Levine became an advocate for crippled children, handicapped adults, and the mentally ill. He took a seat on the board of directors of United Good Neighbors and in 1950 surprised friends and colleagues when he penned new words to the song "Good Night Irene" as the theme song for that year's fundraising campaign.
Levine's boundless energy and even frenetic activity masked serious personal problems. "Our marital relationship was never satisfactory," he wrote, "and the added tension of my immersion in my work and in community activities, contributed to the deterioration of our marriage" (Papers). Madeline resented his long hours away from home. As Levine's stature in the community grew, he socialized with Seattle's affluent elite, whereas Madeline felt more comfortable with the less fortunate whom she met as part of her duties as wife of the rabbi. The two continued to drift apart and in 1952, after their daughter Lori married, they divorced.
In his later years, Levin confessed to feeling "frustrated by the inability to adhere to the highest ideals of Judaism," so he worked 16 hours a day. He experienced "cycles of frenzied activities followed by periods of exhaustion and depression" (Papers). In 1952, he was hospitalized with Bell's palsy, a partial paralysis of the face and speech impairment. On a convalescent trip to Victoria, he experienced something of a religious reawakening and when he tried to express this to his congregation, he was met with stunned silence. He was eventually diagnosed cyclothymia (a mood disorder less serious than Bipolar). He flirted with a belief system called Moral Rearmament, but became disillusioned when he learned it was in actuality a fundamentalist Christian sect.
Levine bounced back and took an interfaith pilgrimage to the Holy Land in 1958 for which he wrote a series of articles for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. These were picked up by national wire services and became the basis for his book, Israel: A Frank Appraisal. He helped organize temples in Vancouver, B.C., and in Anchorage. Temple de Hirsch grew to more than 1,300 members and some of the faithful spun off to form another congregation, Temple Beth Am in Seattle's north end. Temple de Hirsch completed a new temple in 1960.
In 1959, Levine married Reeva Miller, an artist he met at a summer camp. She tried to teach Levine painting, but he was more successful at woodwork and at creating tile mosaics. He hand-carved ornate canes that became his trademark. One cane bore the legends, "To love is to live" and "What is hateful to you do not do unto another" (The Seattle Times, June 22, 1969). In his later years, Levine was described as "everybody's favorite grandfather, small of stature, white bearded, leaning on one of his hand-carved canes, eyes twinkling, lips ready to shape very wise words" (The Seattle Times, October 8, 1969).
On the Air
In 1960, when Senator John F. Kennedy (who was Catholic) was nominated as the Democratic candidate for president, Levine encountered anti-Catholic hate mail. He saw a need for more dialogue between religions and proposed to KOMO-TV a television panel of clergymen not to debate or argue religion, but to discuss commonality. "Challenge" went on the air in 1960 with Rabbi Levine, Fr. William Treacy, and Rev. Dr. Martin L. Goslin of Plymouth Congregational Church. Don McCune served as moderator. "When we began, we were sparing with each other," Levine said, "seeking advantage for our faith. After the first year, we realized that wasn't what we had come for ... . The unity we tried to emphasize, not the diversity" (The Seattle Times, November 21, 1976). The program was a hit and continued weekly for 15 seasons.
Although the Protestant member changed, Treacy and Levine were the regulars and the two became close friends. Treacy, who was a generation younger than Levine, regarded the rabbi as his mentor. Rabbi Levine built an altar for Treacy out of birchwood and the two coauthored Wild Branch on the Olive Tree. They founded Camp Brotherhood together and each preached from the other's pulpit.
In 1961, civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. booked the First Presbyterian Church in Seattle to deliver a speech. When the event was publicized, church leaders cancelled the event, offering a variety of excuses. Rabbi Levine promptly offered Temple de Hirsch for the event. Levine also helped draft an open housing ordinance in 1963, which sought to overturn the restrictive real estate covenants that prevented blacks, Asians, and Jews from owning homes in some neighborhoods. Levine took some criticism for backing the ballot measure from the pulpit, but he insisted that equality was a moral issue, not a political one. That same year, Levine organized a Seattle chapter of People to People, a national program where students and citizens traveled and met people in other countries. He led a nine-country tour of Europe with 35 travelers. The trip earned front-page news coverage in Seattle.
After the first civil rights protests in Seattle, Levine invited African American leaders to meet to discuss their aims and concerns. In 1966, during an African American boycott of Seattle Public Schools, he opened the temple to a freedom school, set up as an alternative to the public school. He helped raise money for a voluntary bussing program to overcome segregation in Seattle schools.
Camp BrotherhoodIn 1966, Levine heard about some property for sale near Mount Vernon. He had always wanted to build an interfaith summer camp and conference center and the 320-acre Green Valley Farm seemed ideal. The old dairy farm was surrounded by national forest and tree farms near Lake McMurray. Without consulting the board or congregation, he and Fr. Treacy raised and borrowed $25,000 for the down payment. The plans for Camp Brotherhood stalled until January 1968, when an architecture class at the University of Washington offered to design a lodge for the camp. The building was completed and Governor Dan Evans dedicated it in September 1968.
In 1969, Levine nominally retired from Temple de Hirsch and became rabbi emeritus, but he did not stop working. He became a circuit-riding rabbi, visiting small Jewish communities around the state that did not have a rabbi. And he continued his weekly television broadcasts until 1974. He wrote articles for magazines and newspapers and he gave speeches. He and Reeva learned and taught Transcendental Meditation after seeing how it benefited a young man they knew who had slipped into drug addiction.
Accolades and Accomplishments
Levine's work in the earned him many awards. These included:
- 1960, Man of the Year, Seattle Lodge 503 B'nai B'rith;
- 1961, citation from the Seattle Civic Unity Community;
- 1966, the State of Israel named the Brotherhood Forest named after him (he asked that it be named for the people of Seattle);
- 1971, Brotherhood Award from the National Conference of Christians and Jews;
- 1971, Friend of Man, Association of Washington Generals;
- 1971 Sidney Gerber Man of the Year;
- 1976, named First Citizen of the Year by the Seattle-King County Association of Realtors;
- 1978, Honorary Doctorate of Humanities, Seattle University.
In 1947, Rabbi Levine published his first book, Legacy of the Prophets. Other works include Holy Man (1952), Israel: A Frank Appraisal (1957), and, with Father William Treacy, Wild Branch on the Olive Tree (1974). Profiles in Service was published posthumously in 1987.
On October 26, 1984, Rabbi Levine was a passenger in a car that was hit headon on the Lake Washington (or Mercer Island) Floating Bridge. At first, Levine seemed to have sustained only facial cuts, but he slipped into a coma. He died of head injuries on November 4, 1984.
Levine's work and words lived after him. His Profiles in Service came out the year after his death. Fr. Treacy published Rabbi Levine's Challenge - Father Treacy's Response in 1988. "It's a work of love and my personal memorial to Levine. He started me in this work. He formed me in it. It's in thanksgiving" (The Seattle Times, March 26, 1988).