A few years back, when Hillside accountant Alvin Levine learned that he had cancer, he began methodically settling his affairs. His beloved wife, Gertrude, had died in 2003, and they had no children. He decided to leave their three-bedroom house on a quiet street in Hillside to Jewish Family Service of Central New Jersey.
Levine died on Oct. 14, 2010, at age 94. The house sold recently for close to $300,000, making it one of the largest gifts the agency has ever received.
JFS executive director Tom Beck said Levine’s offer came as a bittersweet surprise.
“He had been a donor for many years — not a major donor but a regular one — but we had never met him in person before,” said Beck. “We invited him to come to visit and showed him around our building. After that, he and I met a few times for lunch. He was a very nice man, still working, and still very sharp. He could walk faster than I did.”
Beck asked Levine if his generosity could be memorialized. Levine was adamant that he didn’t want that kind of publicity, but he did agree to have his wife honored. Recognizing how much the couple valued the home care services JFS provides to the frail elderly and those with disabilities, Beck arranged for a plaque to be installed designating “The Gertrude Levine Center for Home Health Services.”
The day before Levine died, Beck visited him at the Center for Hope Hospice in Scotch Plains, and said he was clear-minded to very near the end.
Levine’s kindness inspired a chain of generosity. Two attorneys on the JFS board handled the legal aspect of the house sale pro bono, and others saw to the necessary repairs and renovations. Longtime JFS supporter Sunny Suckno, a real estate agent, offered to handle the sale of the house without taking any commission.
The house was purchased by a young Jewish couple, Steven and Shaina Rosen. He is from Queens; she grew up in Highland Park and attended Bruriah High School for Girls in Elizabeth, and later Kean University in Union. They were married in 2008; it was Shaina who suggested they move to the Elizabeth area.
After some exploration, “I fell in love with this community,” Steven said. They weren’t actively searching, but through a friend they heard about the JFS house and made contact with Suckno.
“It was the perfect house for us,” Shaina said. “The baby could have his own room, and there’s enough space if family come to visit. We love entertaining and it’s great for that.”
Steven said, “It was in the perfect location, in a very quiet area. And Sunny Suckno made the whole process of buying so pleasant.”
They were moved by the story of the Levines’ gift, and intrigued by what they began to learn about JFS.
“I didn’t know much about its work,” Steven said, “but through the process of buying the house, I began to learn more.” He started volunteering at the agency, and helped organize its fund-raiser concert last year. Now he has offered to help with the annual art show and sale, to be held in Westfield this spring.
“We’re really happy to be part of this unique arrangement,” Steven said. “The whole story definitely touched us, and it made it much more meaningful than buying another house would have been.”
Beck couldn’t agree more. “The whole thing has worked out perfectly,” he said. “And yes, it would be great if other people decide to follow Mr. Levine’s example.”