Rabbi Avi Levine always wanted to live in Jerusalem. He loved Israel, especially Yerushalayim, and longed to make it his home.
Many happy decades as a pulpit rabbi in the United States delayed that move, and a protracted battle with cancer denied it. Levine, the longtime senior rabbi at Congregation Beth El in Berkeley, succumbed to the disease on Oct. 26, in his home of Palm Desert. He was 70.
In honor of his lifelong dream, his family flew his body to Israel and had him interred in a Jerusalem cemetery on Nov. 1.
Levine came to Beth El in 1976 and stayed for more than 18 years. During his tenure, membership at the Berkeley Reform synagogue more than doubled. He helped found the nursery school, strengthened the religious school and instituted religious services for the hearing impaired.
But longtime congregants remember him most for being a real mensch.
“He brought a new energy to the congregation,” remembers 60-year member Frances Alexander. “That appealed to the congregants. He was a very emotional rabbi, very sympathetic to families when they lost someone. He often cried at funerals [he officiated].”
Beth El was Levine’s first posting as a senior rabbi. He had had previous stints in St. Louis and Baltimore.
“My earliest memory of Avi was when he was introduced to the congregation,” recalled Lois Marcus, a member since 1967. “We were some of the younger members, so we became friends with him. He was like one of the family.”
For a few years, Levine wrote a Torah column in the Jewish Bulletin, which is what j. was called until 2003. Teaching was a passion of his, and Levine routinely led youth trips to Israel. This only further fueled his passion for the Jewish state, which he shared with congregants.
He spent a sabbatical year in Israel in 1990. For several months before departing, he and his wife, Linda, spoke only Hebrew at home to their three children.
Going to Israel, Levine told the Bulletin in 1993, “was an important message to our children, to let them know that we cared about something.”
He cared just as deeply about the Jewish community back home. For a while he served as a chaplain at San Quentin State Prison. Some years after that, a familiar-looking man approached him in a pharmacy. “I couldn’t quite place him,” Levine told the Bulletin, “but he remembered me. He looked at me and said ‘S.Q.’ [San Quentin] with a big smile. He’d gotten his life together. We embraced.”
Marcus remembers a softball team Levine started — the Bad News Jews — and also driving with him to the homes of new Beth El members, delivering challahs as welcome gifts.
“He was a warm presence,” said Marcus, a former president of the congregation. “He touched many lives. Through tragedies and simchas, he was there for people when they needed him.”
Levine left Beth El in 1994 for a synagogue in Tucson. His career later took him to congregations in Atlanta and Pomona, Calif. and, ultimately, to Temple Sinai in Palm Desert, where he served until shortly before his death.
For the last 12 years of his life, Levine battled cancer, but he was able to continue working, even writing his “Message from the Rabbi” column in the October edition of his Palm Desert synagogue’s newsletter.
Avi Levine is survived by his wife, Linda, and three children, Yael, Tal and Tamar. A memorial fund in his name has been established at City of Hope cancer center. Contributions may be sent to City of Hope, 5090 Shoreham Place, Suite 212, San Diego, CA 92122.