Jacqueline K. Levine of West Orange was almost embarrassed by the applause she received in a stirring address before the annual gathering of national Jewish federation leaders in Baltimore.
Speaking at the opening plenary of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, held Nov. 11-13 in Baltimore, Levine described her participation in key moments of the civil rights movement, including her time on a picket line at a Newark Woolworth’s store that refused to serve blacks at its lunch counter.
“I don’t know that I deserve applause,” she told the audience on the first day of the event. “I had to do it. It was within me. I had to be part of that.”
The speech by Levine, who has served for 30 years on the executive committee of the board of what is now the Jewish Federation of Greater MetroWest NJ, was widely acknowledged as a highlight of the convention, which also included appearances by Elie Wiesel, Natan Sharansky, and Israel’s ambassador to the United States, former West Orange resident Michael Oren.
The goal, said organizers, was to inspire a new generation of leaders with stories of her strength in the face of discrimination anywhere in the world.
Levine spoke about taking part in the “remarkable” March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963, and hearing her rabbi, Joachim Prinz of Temple B’nai Abraham, deliver an oration before Martin Luther King Jr. gave his now famous “I Have a Dream” speech.
She was again interrupted with applause as she discussed marching for civil rights from Selma to Montgomery, in a protest led by King. “When I marched at Selma, my feet were praying,” she said, quoting Abraham Joshua Heschel.
Injecting a sobering note, she reminded the audience that “it was a wonderful day but a terrible time.”
At the same time, her activism was “a pivotal moment in my life,” leading her to take up other issues. She would go on to become the first woman to serve as the national chair of the American Jewish Congress’s Governing Council and the first national chair of the Mobilization for Soviet Jewry. She also has battled hunger as a founding member of MAZON, and poverty on the board of the Jewish Fund for Justice.
In 1969, Levine became national president of the women’s division of the Council of Jewish Federations, a precursor to JFNA. She and her husband of over 60 years, Howard Levine, president of a transportation company, have supported the Montclair Art Museum, Bryn Mawr College, HIAS, and the League of Women Voters.
Levine received perhaps her biggest ovation in describing the two times she was arrested for her activism. The first time, she and her children were arrested and jailed overnight for leafleting, at the request of Prinz, against an anti-Israel mural at the Jordanian pavilion at the 1964 New York World’s Fair.
“My two sons thought it was a lot of fun. My daughter was not so sure,” she said. “It actually was a very difficult day — a full day — in prison. Very sobering. The matron doesn’t know that you’re there for civil rights or civil liberties or any reason.”
A judge ultimately upheld her First Amendment rights, and her record was expunged.
Twenty years later, by then deeply involved in the Soviet Jewry movement, she tried to slip a letter under the door of the Soviet Embassy in Washington during a protest vigil and was arrested.
“It was not quite so harrowing for me as the first time,” she said. They stayed overnight, pleaded no contest, and went home. It took three years to clear her record. “Thank God,” she quipped, “in time for my grandchildren to get into college.”
Dubbing her life in activism and advocacy “a search for perfection of the world,” she said, “I believe deeply that I have to follow the mandates of our prophets: to seek peace, justice, equality, freedom, and to do that through a dual prism” of taking care of Jews and “all humankind.”
She added, “I am a fulfilled and very fortunate woman.”