Back in September, Phil Deutsch began thinking about Rabbi Yosef and Dena Levin’s 25th anniversary as Chabad representatives in Palo Alto, CA, which would coincide with the rabbi’s fiftieth birthday. The approaching milestone anniversary came up in conversation, and Deutsch told the rabbi, “I think it is time someone did something for you–special.”
At first, Rabbi Levin said no. “I pushed him,” Deutsch recalled. Finally, the Levins gave in. On one condition: the event was not to be in their honor, but a celebration of the entire Jewish community. Turns out there was much to celebrate.
Fast forward to February 25. An elegant fountain trickled alongside tables that were blooming with bouquet arrangements in a ballroom at the S. Clara Convention Center. Deutsch, along with his wife Vivian, Eliot and Sandy Klugman, and committees of those who appreciate all the Levins have accomplished over a quarter century pulled together the entire event, attended by close to 400 people from every segment of the Greater South Bay’s Jewish community and beyond. People flew in from Paris, Pittsburgh, Arizona, New York to participate. Rabbi Levin was touched by the turn out. “It was a huge thing,” he said, moved by “the fact we have touched so many lives, people from every single community and background.”
The keynote address by Rabbi Moshe Kotlarsky, Vice Chairman of Merkos L’inyonei Chinuch, the international Chabad-Lubavitch educational movement, who maintains a frantic travel schedule to keep tabs on Chabad’s worldwide presence, left a lasting impression on the crowd. Rabbi Kotlarsky was “very special, very persuasive. He made me feel very proud of our community,” said Shani Bocian.
Throughout the brunch, speakers noted how instrumental the Levins have been in cultivating the landscape of the Greater South Bay, a hop south down the 101 Freeway from San Francisco, into the vibrant Jewish area it is today. From a rented, 600 square foot room in the Jewish Community, Chabad has grown to include centers in Palo Alto, Sunnyvale, Mountain View and at Stanford University. The summer camp began with 35 children and has grown under the leadership of Rabbi Yisroel Hecht to bring Jewish summertime memories to 250 children each season, and the Friendship Circle, guided by Rabbi
In a four-page full color spread in the Palo Alto Weekly, Rabbi Levin’s success was attributed to having “built his reputation on the simple ideas of inclusiveness and understanding.” Rabbi Shelly and Lorri Lewis of Congregation Kol Emeth paid tribute to the Levins for having been “so very supportive of everyone who works for our people regardless of differences between us while you steadfastly hold up your own standards. You set a very high bar for ‘ahavas Yisrael.’” The chaplain for the S. Clara Department of Corrections, David M. Robinson, praised Rabbi Levin’s wisdom and negotiating abilities that led to the availability of kosher food for Jewish inmates. Rabbi Levin’s “love has shown no judgment yet his gift of discernment has identified those who are truly in great need and seeking the ways of faith. Rabbi’s commitment to those individuals opened the doors of life and freed tem from their misery of isolation and the darkness of abandonment.”
As impressed as people are with the Levins’ programs and buildings, it’s their family that bowls people over. “They are amazing people,” said Vivian Deutsch. “They have thirteen fabulous kids, and at Dena’s home you can eat off the floors. They are all organized. You come in, and the kids are washed, doing their homework quietly. The Levins are just so capable.”
On a jumbo sized screen, a video, which the Levin’s son-in-law, Rabbi Shmuel Volovick, principal of Torah Academy, put together with a professional, snapshots of the Levin’s early years in Palo Alto flickered by, spliced with tributes from community members past and present. Nechama Schusterman, one of the Levins’ daughters, who watched with her week-old daughter Rochel Leah in her arms said, “Seeing my father with a small black beard, driving a bus, running a camp, dancing with kids, doing what 22, 23 year olds do now was amazing,” she said. “To hear speakers describe how they appreciate my parents was so nice it see. I think it gave my parents new energy… It felt like a dream.”