Among many luminaries who helped found Bend the Arc’s legacy organizations, none shone more brightly in their commitment to our work than Larry and Linda Levine. Larry, who passed away in 2004, was a founding board member and Chair Emeritus of Jewish Fund for Justice. Linda, who passed away this winter, offered tremendous support as we made the post-merger transition to become Bend the Arc, personally offering her wisdom and knowledge of the organization and its history to smooth the way.
Larry served as Assistant U.S. Attorney for the Eastern District and founded a law firm with a focus on civil rights, employment law and criminal defense, with a large pro bono practice. He was a member of the CUNY Law School Advisory Board and a strong advocate of the school’s mission to ensure that underserved communities have access to legal representation.
Linda, a lifelong advocate for education equality, was an adjunct professor and dean of the graduate school at Bank Street College of Education. She co-founded and directed the Urban Education Semester, which introduces students to the experience of teaching in an urban environment. With a doctoral degree in Anthropology and Education, Linda was also a fellow of the American Anthropological Association.
On March 4 we had the opportunity to speak with one of Linda and Larry’s three daughters, Audrey Levine, about her parents. Below are highlights from that conversation.
Bend the Arc: It’s obvious from your parents’ biographies that they were committed to social justice causes. What made them interested in pursuing this in a Jewish way?
My father felt very profoundly that this was what it meant to be a Jew. He had a notion of concentric circles of care, that you take care of family but then you also take care of wider circles of the community. When he first got involved with Jewish Fund for Justice (JFJ) he was particularly struck by the notion of sharing resources. His sense was that there were Jewish groups that funded Jewish projects but that there was an important place in the world for something that reached beyond taking care of our own. He saw something distinctly different in JFJ and was really taken with the mission and committed to the organization’s core beliefs.
Both of my parents were involved in civil rights work in the 1960s. My mom had worked for the ACLU, so their commitment to social justice went way back. I remember, even as a child, knowing that these were their core values.
Bend the Arc: Was there a connection between being Jewish and pursuing justice that you heard about in your family growing up?
There was not a single Passover Seder where we did not connect the part of our history of being Jewish and recognizing that we were once slaves with what was happening around us every day, and how people continue to be enslaved by poverty, racial injustice, and other forces. From very early on it was ingrained in us that we are not free until everyone is free.
Bend the Arc: Our CEO, Alan van Capelle, has noted how generous your mother was in helping him navigate his first year with the organization. What do you think motivated her?
After my dad died my mom felt strongly that she wanted to maintain a commitment to the things that he was most committed to. My parents were profound influences on each other. My dad’s commitment to the CUNY Law School, for example, where he worked to make sure that admissions weren’t just about LSAT scores but took a broader array of criteria into account, was drawn from my mother’s work to promote equity in education. They both cared about the causes that were important to the other.
Bend the Arc: Is there anything else you would like readers to know about your parents?
The thing my father also felt was profoundly Jewish was to ask questions. He believed that questioning and wrestling with issues was something that we have an obligation to do, rather than to take things at face value. He felt it was an essential part of being Jewish to question the status quo and to question assumptions.
I recently saw a sign that reminded me of my dad; it said “Don’t believe everything you think.” And that was equally true for my mom as well. They both had very strong convictions but they both really engaged with people in questioning, and encouraged that in others.