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Rabbi Richard Levine, 75, Prominent South Jersey Leader
Rabbi Richard A. Levine, who served 41 years as the religious leader of Burlington County’s only Reform synagogue, died Feb. 28 following a long illness. He was 75 years old and lived in Voorhees, N.J.
“Jewish tradition tells us that those whom God calls home on the Sabbath are considered especially meritorious,” said Levine’s oldest son, Ari. He described his father as a passionate Zionist who embraced the scholarly life as well as the sporting one.
Rabbi emeritus of Adath Emanu-El in Mount Laurel since his 2005 retirement, Levine continued to teach adult courses there — the school wing is named for him — and contribute to special events and services.
Levine was the first full-time rabbi to serve Temple Emanu-El of Willingboro, N.J., as the congregation was known when he arrived shortly after his ordination in 1964. Under his leadership, the congregation grew from 50 to more than 500 families. But after demographics changed and membership declined, in 1997 he led the procession from Willingboro to the temple’s new home in Mount Laurel, by then known as Adath Emanu-El. There, membership returned to its previous levels.
Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., Levine graduated from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania with a bachelor’s degree in economics, thinking that he would follow his father and brother into the family accounting business, Ari Levine said. But he felt a higher calling, his son continued, and went on to become ordained as a Reform rabbi at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 1964, where he later also earned an honorary Doctor of Divinity degree.
Displaying his sense of humor when congregants asked why he majored in economics, he would say, “I always wanted to be the first rabbi who really understood his contract!”
The rabbi’s passion for sports was evident during the 1980s and ’90s when he co-anchored a Philadelphia Eagles' television pregame show called A Higher Power, which blended his enthusiasm for the team with humor and theology.
Levine's other great passion, aside from his large blended family, was Israel. He visited the Jewish state more than 25 times, including leading 11 congregational trips.
An ardent supporter of the Jewish National Fund, he led Adath Emanu-El and its congregants to plant so many trees that his name was placed on the JNF Roll of Honor in Jerusalem. Based on the plaques in a grove known as “The New Jersey Forest,” Adath Emanu-El has planted more trees than any other congregation in the state, Ari Levine said.
Early in his career, Levine was tapped to help lead the song and Israeli dance program at Camp Kutz, the Reform Movement’s youth leadership training institute in Warwick, N.Y.
“My father gave license to a new generation of voices such as the late Debbie Friedman, Cantor Jeff Klepper and Rabbi Daniel Freelander, and they in turn helped to change the way Jews relate to one another and to God,” Ari Levine said.
Friedman wrote her first song, “And Thou Shalt Love,” while living with Levine and his family in Willingboro.
Adath Emanu-El Rabbi Benjamin David called his predecessor “a rabbi's rabbi, a mensch, a friend and a truly precious soul.”
Levine was reportedly the first and only South Jersey rabbi to serve as president of the Greater Philadelphia Board of Rabbis, and spoke in that role on behalf of the Jewish community on July 4, 1976, at Independence Hall.
He also served in South Jersey as president of the Tri-County Board of Rabbis and on the boards of the Jewish Federation of Southern New Jersey, Jewish Family and Children’s Service and the Department of Jewish Education and Continuity, as well as on the regional boards of Reform Rabbis and the Jewish National Fund. He chaired human relations commissions and ethics boards in Willingboro and Voorhees.
In addition to his son Ari, Levine is survived by his wife, Judith Chaikin Levine; daughters Deborah Golder, Samantha Chaikin, Yael Emenecker and Shira Keet; sons Ron Levine, Brian Golder, Jason Chaikin and Matthew Chaikin; sister Rhoda Cohen; brother Robert; and 13 grandchildren.
Contributions may be made to the Rabbi Richard Levine Good Works Fund, c/o Adath Emanu-El, 205 Elbo Lane, Mount Laurel, N.J. 08054. Donations will be divided among his favorite charities, including Adath Emanu-El, the Jewish National Fund and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.