Eulogy: Naomi Levine, civil rights activist, NYU doyen and ‘force of nature’

The shortest job interview I ever had was with the most powerful woman in the world, Naomi B. Levine, who died today at age 98.

Naomi was Senior Vice President for External Affairs at New York University, and I was a young rabbi hoping to serve as executive director of the Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life at NYU. Most thought I lacked adequate experience for such an important position, representing America’s leading Jewish philanthropist and a university very much on the rise.

After five minutes of rapid-fire questions, more challenging as they progressed, she offered me the job. “If I catch you sitting at your desk I’ll fire you. I want you out on campus and being there for students. I’ll raise the money.” Then, with a wink, she said, “Now we just need to form a search committee so a bunch of professors can think they make the decisions around here.”

Naomi Levine was truly a force of nature. From humble roots in the Bronx, she earned a degree from Hunter College and a law degree from Columbia University, where, she said, “I was much more interesting to talk to than Justice Ginsburg and Bella Abzug was an average student.”

Leonard Levine, her husband for half a century, landed at Normandy, was in the Battle of the Bulge, and then was among the soldiers assigned to accompany General Dwight D. Eisenhower on his tour of concentration camps which were the center of the Nazi genocide death machine.

He was among a number of soldiers who were sickened and overwhelmed by what they saw and experienced. When they addressed questions to their general about the assignment, Eisenhower said what he would eventually put in writing: “The things I saw beggar description. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were so overpowering, I made the visit deliberately, in order to be in a position to give first hand evidence of these things, if ever, in the future, there develops a tendency to charge these allegations to propaganda.”

More than 70 years later, Eisenhower’s words are particularly memorable and especially important. In our current divided nation, with antisemitism and racism again on the rise and dangerous, violent forces aligned, Naomi was always reminding us that the past is prologue and our fight for justice is an undying flame.

Naomi worked in the Civil Rights division of the American Jewish Congress during a time in American history when Jewish communal leadership was deeply engaged in questions of racism, antisemitism, desegregation, and support for the fledgling state of Israel. It was an era of addressing head-on the enormous structural issues facing America in the second half of the 20th century; and in a world of broad shoulders and outsized egos, Naomi was usually the only woman in the room. “I knew I deserved to be there because I was as smart as, and often smarter, than everyone else in the room,” she said. “And if I kept my mouth shut about it, I could get an awful lot done.”

Naomi’s mentor at the American Jewish Congress was Justine Wise Polier, New York’s first female justice and daughter of Rabbi Stephen Wise, a champion of social justice causes who had been a founding member of both the American Jewish Congress and the NAACP. For Naomi, the meeting of Black people and Jews over civil rights was not only tactical but downright American. The fiercest fights for justice for all Americans needed to waged by and felt keenly by those for whom fairness and equality would matter most.

Naomi worked very closely on two noteworthy cases, crafting some of the decisive language in both the Sweatt v. Painter and Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka cases, which successfully challenged and overturned Plessy v. Ferguson, the odious 1896 Supreme Court case that encoded into the U.S. law the segregationist structures of “separate but equal.”

Naomi and her team at the Congress commissioned the critical sociological research by noted scholars Kenneth and Mamie Clark that demonstrated, in the famous “doll case,” that Black children in segregated classrooms suffered serious psychological damage as a result of being separated legally from white students. Future Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall would argue both cases successfully; and students of law will find Naomi’s fingerprints in the footnotes.

That was always just as well with her. She didn’t need the attention. She had other fish to fry.

Less than a decade later, Naomi’s hands would shape history again.

She co-wrote Rabbi Joachim Prinz’s “Sin of Silence” speech, which he delivered after Mahalia Jackson’s performance and before Rev Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington, in which Prinz linked Black Civil Rights to his own fate as a Jewish refugee from Hitler’s Germany. (Prinz, Berlin’s most charismatic and daring Reform rabbi, fled the Gestapo to a safe haven in Newark, and makes an heroic appearance in Philip Roth’s dystopic but now prophetic The Plot Against America.) Prinz spoke Naomi’s words that August day in 1963: “the most urgent, the most disgraceful, the most shameful and the most tragic problem is silence.”

At NYU, Naomi worked with a new generation of American business titans of industry and transformed the university into a world-class, international institution, expanding its influence in an ever-changing city and leaving yet another legacy gift for future generations. The idea that an excellent education is a human right and the first principle of building a just society animated her work. Of the many attempts that were made by businessman Donald Trump to join the NYU board, she was proud to say, “There is no way ever that our trustees would welcome him.” She was even more appalled by him as President.

Well into her 90s, she made speeches all over the country for universities; lobbied state capitols for strict ethical guidelines for philanthropic giving; advocated for universal childcare; and in what was closest to her heart, worked vehemently toward the strengthening and regeneration of Jewish life. Naomi was proud to declaim that she was never a believer and loved to regale us with stories of going toe-to-toe with leading rabbis, from Joseph Soloveitchik to Arthur Hertzberg. But her passion for being a learned Jew, for pursuing justice, and for leaving the world in a better condition than the one she was born into, is her eternal gift to us all.

As Larry Tisch said in the NYT about Naomi in 2001: “There is no after Naomi.”

When I told my daughters that Naomi died, they wrote, as many young women wrote when Justice Ginsberg died, “May her memory be a revolution.” Naomi Levine would have shrugged at the suggestion and likely argued that revolutions are bloody and dangerous; but a smart head, critical thinking and some solid legislative work can go a long way toward bringing peace and justice for all.

Rabbi Andy Bachman is executive director of the Jewish Community Project of Lower Manhattan

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Forward.

Naomi Levine: civil rights activist, ‘force of nature’

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