When friends of Yosef and Dena Levin wanted to salute the couple for 25 years of community service, the Palo Alto Chabad rabbi and rebbetzin at first said no. Self-aggrandizement just isn’t their style.
But so many admirers insisted on holding an event, the Levins ultimately relented. Now the couple will just have sit back and accept the accolades from a grateful Jewish community.
The “champagne brunch” celebration for Yosef and Dena Levin takes place Sunday, Feb. 26 at the Santa Clara Convention Center.
“I certainly don’t want this to be something honoring me and my wife,” says the rabbi, who will also mark his 50th birthday. “The purpose is to celebrate 25 years of community growth and 25 more.”
Over the course of a quarter-century, the Levins got a lot done. The rabbi expanded Chabad’s South Bay profile into five centers, opened a Torah Academy and several other schools and camps, launched Friendship Circle (an outreach program for Jewish children with disabilities) and founded Va’ad Kashrus of Northern California.
Dena Levin oversaw a women’s adult education program and mikvah outreach campaign. And together the couple fed thousands over the years at their popular Shabbat dinners.
Somehow, they also managed to raise a family of 13 children.
“I think they’re phenomenal,” says Vivian Deutsch, whose husband, Phil, is one of the principal organizers of the event. The two have good reason to be especially indebted: Dena Levin played matchmaker for them several years ago after Phil Deutsch lost his first wife and Vivian moved to California from Israel.
It all happened, as does so much else, at the Levins’ Friday-night dinner.
“I had heard tales about the Levin Shabbat table,” recalls Vivian Deutsch. “Not only did they give me Phil, I found them absolutely down to earth. They raised their kids with such empowerment. They’re an amazing family.”
Yosef Levin remains humble. “Anyone can come to Chabad and we’ll help them,” he says. “We’ve successfully reached out to people of all backgrounds.”
Another admirer is Michael Cahn. He and Levin began a dialogue 25 years ago and have been friends ever since. “We don’t believe the same things, but our relationship is built on mutual respect,” says the San Jose doctor. “I appreciate his outreach not only to the Jewish community but the non-Jewish community.”
Among the Jews, one was Cahn’s son, who had resisted Levin’s entreaties to come for Shabbat dinner. The boy, then a karate enthusiast, was finally persuaded to attend when Levin broke a wooden board with his bare hands as a kind of incentive.
One of the non-Jews impacted by the rabbi was the Rev. David Robinson, director of chaplaincy for the Santa Clara County Department of Corrections. He first met Levin 20 years ago when the two collaborated to serve the needs of Jewish inmates.
“He was instrumental in the Santa Clara system,” says Robinson. “He worked with us to set up kosher diets. In his sense of compassion and his love for the men and women and kids, there’s no judgmentalism.”
Yosef Levin was born in Sunderland, a small town in northern England, where his parents had immigrated to escape Stalinist tyranny. In his teens, Levin attended yeshivas in Israel, Paris and New York — where he met Dena.
At 24 he came to Palo Alto to “fulfill the rebbe’s wish to bring Judaism to every Jew, including those left out, not knowledgeable and the disabled. That means Torah study, doing mitzvot, connection to Israel, tzedakah, giving a helping hand or a piece of bread.”
His record of achievement testifies to his success. But Levin prefers to focus on individual outreach rather than the big projects. “My ideal is to spend time with an individual,” he says, “and talk about whatever is on their mind.”
One such person was Kaylee Frager, a Palo Alto teacher at the Ronald C. Wornick Jewish Day School. She first met the rabbi in 1990, but it wasn’t until 1993, when she had developed breast cancer, that they became friends.
While in the hospital, she received a call from him. “I didn’t want to talk to anybody,” she says. “I was on meds, tubes from head to toe, not fit for company. He said, ‘This is not company.’ Two hours later I was up walking and talking down the hallways. He got me out of bed emotionally.”
Following her recovery, she relied on Levin as a mentor, rabbi and friend. “He truly has ahavah Yisrael and ahavah olam (love of the Jewish people and love of the whole world).”
That translates into a broad community of admirers from across the spectrum. As Cahn puts it, “I look at him as a uniting force in the Jewish community.”
As for Levin, he tends to deflect such personal praise, preferring to take a wider view.
“I see a very different world from 25 years ago,” he says. “Palo Alto has become a center of Judaism. There’s a tremendous amount of activity going on, and in terms of Chabad, we’ve built a lot. I think the sky is the limit for the next 25.”
“Celebration for 25 Years of Dedicated and Outstanding Service to the Community” takes place 11:30 a.m. Feb. 26 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. Tickets: $75. Information: (650) 424-9800.