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National award for a ‘Lion’s’ life of activism
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National award for a ‘Lion’s’ life of activism

Civil rights champion Jacqueline Levine led fight for Soviet Jewry

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Jacqueline Levine and her husband — of 61 years — Howard, have three children and six grandchildren.
Jacqueline Levine and her husband — of 61 years — Howard, have three children and six grandchildren.

The national federation movement will award one of its top honors for women philanthropists to Jacqueline K. Levine of West Orange, a longtime Jewish community leader and political activist who became the national voice of the struggle for Soviet Jewry.

Levine will receive the Kipnis-Wilson/Friedland Award in November, at the International Lions of Judah Conference in New Orleans. Established in 2004 by National Women’s Philanthropy of Jewish Federations of North America, the award recognizes women who have set a high standard for philanthropy and volunteerism. Recipients of the award are expected to have made a difference locally and across the globe.

The award is named in honor of the founders of the organization’s Lion of Judah society, Norma Kipnis-Wilson and Toby Friedland. Lion of Judah is an honor society for individuals who donate at least $5,000 to their annual federation campaign.

Previous recipients from MetroWest include Adele Lebersfeld (2004), Lois Lautenberg (2006), and Rita Waldor (2008).

“It’s very important to me because it comes from my community, MetroWest, which has been an integral part of my whole [adult] life,” said Levine in an interview. “And it means a tremendous amount because I was chosen by my peers. That’s a very important milestone in my life. I’ve been part of many momentous changes in American and Jewish life, and this award is important because it symbolizes what American-Jewish women have contributed to the well-being of our fellow Jews.”

Levine’s six decades of service to the Jewish community began in 1954, when she joined the American Jewish Congress in opposition to Sen. Joseph McCarthy. She quickly began to focus her efforts on civil rights, picketing Woolworth stores for their refusal to seat African-Americans at their lunch counters. She attended the 1963 March on Washington, and she marched with Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. from Selma to Montgomery.

She also began taking on leadership roles locally, getting involved in previous incarnations of what is now United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ. She has served on the executive committee of UJC’s board of directors for over 30 years. Many of her positions were firsts for women, and she was always outspoken in her support of women’s leadership.

In 1965 she was the first chair of what was then known as the Women’s Division Campaign. She remembers that as one of her proudest local accomplishments.

“We raised the most money that had ever been raised — $360,000,” said Levine. “Today, of course, women raise a tremendous portion of the total campaign. I’m very proud of being part of the campaign these many years.”

‘A real challenge’

In 1969, Levine became national president of the Council of Jewish Federations’ women’s division. In that role, she challenged the larger organization to include women in its leadership.

She was the first woman to serve as national chair of American Jewish Congress’ governing council, and she was the National Jewish Community Relations Advisory Council’s first Soviet Jewry chairwoman. (She is still involved in the organization, now known as the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.) She eventually became the national chair of the Mobilization for Soviet Jewry.

“I’m also proud of the role I played in community relations, first as chair of the [Community Relations Committee of MetroWest] in the 1970s and then in the 1980s as national chair of what is now JCPA,” said Levine. “We accomplished a tremendous amount in those years, protecting the separation of church and state and advocating the role of women.

“It was also the beginning of the Soviet Jewry freedom movement, and I was able to really rouse our community and tell the story of what Soviet Jews were undergoing.”

In 2008, Levine was featured in the PBS documentary The Jewish Americans, in which she discussed both her activities in civil rights and her involvement with the Soviet Jewry movement.

“I think the most pressing international issue is maintaining the security of the State of Israel, explaining to our fellow Jews and all Americans the role Israel plays, and the difficulties she has in the attempts to make peace with the Palestinians,” said Levine. “Domestically — I think protecting the Bill of Rights and maintaining the role of women.”

But as a lifetime member of both National Women’s Philanthropy and the Women’s Philanthropy board of UJC MetroWest, she said she worries about the future of the “umbrella” model of federation giving. Federations have been buffeted by cultural changes and a preference for many young philanthropists to give to “boutique” causes and organizations.

“The American-Jewish community has to confront the differences between the federated giving that we’ve always had as a model and giving to particular interests so successfully achieved by younger philanthropists,” said Levine, herself a founding member of MAZON: A Jewish Response to Hunger and the Jewish Fund for Justice. “That impinges upon our concept of one gift to cover the community, which does not seem relevant or important anymore.

“It’s a real challenge for this generation and the next one,” she said: “How is centralized giving going to be accomplished, or is that something that is simply outre?”

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