By Deb Silverthorn
Walter Julius Levy turned 100 on June 9. He joined with family and friends on Sunday, June 26, at the Aaron Family JCC for all to extend him the warmest of wishes.
“Happy birthday all together? There’s nothing better than that,” said Levy. “One hundred is something and I feel blessed.”
Born in Ortelsburg, East Prussia (Germany), Levy is the son of Jenny and George and the brother of Eva Novis, all of blessed memory. When he was 10, his family moved to Koenigsberg, now Kaliningrad, Russia, and in 1938 they immigrated to Fort Smith, Arkansas, where he says awaiting relatives provided them with a “welcome and positive resettlement.”
“My father was a traveling salesman, my mother a homemaker and I was a troublemaker. I was in high school for all my classes but English — there I was in Mrs. Jordan’s third grade class,” said Levy, who recalls that in Fort Smith the family attended United Hebrew Congregation. “Within a semester I was on board with everyone my age. I went from the third grade to the 12th (in English) in one year and graduated with my class!”
Levy went to Fort Smith Junior College and then Hendrix College. He worked part time, received scholarships and loans and earned a degree in philosophic studies. “I thought about going into the rabbinate,” said Levy, who instead earned a master’s in education at the University of Chicago. He studied social work and psychology at Wayne State University and the University of Minnesota before earning an MSW at Washington University in St. Louis.
Levy taught high school English, Spanish, speech and dramatics in Forrest City, Arkansas, and then worked at Jewish Vocational Service in Detroit, Michigan. In Missouri and Minnesota, he worked supporting adolescents and adults, mostly veterans, Holocaust survivors and mentally and physically challenged patients, with educational and vocational counseling, psychological testing and job placement.
In St. Louis, Levy met the former Hilma Cohn, of Indianola, Mississippi, to whom he was married for 67 years until she passed away in 2016.
In 1956, the Levy family moved to Dallas, where he became administrative assistant and then assistant director to Jack Kravitz, the executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas.
The Levys left Dallas in 1960, and he worked as a consultant to the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Lynn and Boston, Massachusetts, and the Council of Jewish Federations and Welfare Funds (now JFNA) Southern Region.
In 1968, the Levys returned to Dallas, when he assumed the role of associate executive director of the Federation; five years later he succeeded Kravitz as executive director.
The years 1973 to 1975 were tumultuous ones for Levy. During that period of time Levy suffered two heart attacks and his father passed away. The Yom Kippur War took place and the Federation offices were gutted by fire. While the Federation expected 500 to attend its 1974 campaign opening at Temple Shalom, more than 1,200 attended, raising more money than ever to that point.
After 13 years at the Federation, Levy returned to social work, opening a private practice in Farmers Branch, where he served elderly and widowed clientele for 20 years before retiring in 1999.
He’s been honored by the National Association of Social Workers by being named as the 1986 Social Worker of the Year, presented with Lifetime Achievement Awards in 1995 (both Dallas Unit and Texas Chapter) and being cited as the 2001 Social Work Pioneer. In 1995 he received recognition by the Dallas Mayor and, in 2008, he received Hendrix College’s Humanitarian Award. He is the most honored Dallas social worker.
In 2004 the Levys moved to The Forum at Park Lane, where they’d lead Friday Shabbat services and Passover Seders. “I like it here,” said Levy, with no intention of moving. “I lead the Silver Sneakers exercise classes; the food is good; and I enjoy the company of my neighbors.”
Levy, a longtime and prolific collector of classical and operatic music, and stamps, has been involved in the Aaron Family JCC, American Jewish Congress (a founding Dallas chapter member), Dallas Alliance for the Mentally Ill, Dallas Area Agency on Aging, Dallas Holocaust and Human Rights Museum, Dallas–Park Cities Philatelic Society, Jewish Family Service, Mended Hearts, Vogel Alcove and others. He served as a consultant for the NorthStar Behavioral Health Authority and, for 18 years, as a consultant to the Feldman Foundation. He has taught and lectured at area colleges and universities.
He has been published in numerous periodicals including the Dallas Area Gerontological Society, The Israeli Philatelist journal, the Journal of Jewish Communal Service, Senior Adult News, Vocational Guidance Quarterly and others. He and Hilma enjoyed traveling — visiting 20 countries — with eight trips to Israel. Now, he enjoys a monthly lunch with a group of social work colleagues.
Levy’s commemoration of his bar mitzvah at 13 was at the Alte Synagogue in Koenigsberg, Germany. In June 2005, he celebrated a second bar mitzvah at his 83rd birthday. Joined by members of Congregation Shearith Israel’s adult b’nai mitzvah class, Levy took his turn reading part of the Haftorah and the Torah portion and delivering the sermon. On June 11, he returned to the Shearith bimah for an aliyah and blessing for his 100th birthday.
“We were delighted to give Walter an aliyah and a special blessing. That week’s parashah, Naso, started off with a census of the Levites, those who faithfully served God and their Israelite brethren in taking care of the Tabernacle and ultimately the Temple,” said Shearith’s Rabbi Ari Sunshine. “Walter is a Levi by genealogy but also in spirit. Even at 100, he’s still a frequent attendee at Shabbat and holiday services, continuing to treasure his, and his family’s, involvement with the Jewish community. We wish he may live ad meah v’esrim, to the ripe age of 120, like our teacher Moses!”
On June 7, the Dallas Jewish Community Foundation awarded more than $260,000 in scholarships, including two from the Barbara Calick and Deborah Levy Scholarship Fund named for the couple’s two daughters, of blessed memory.
Wanting to give back the way Levy received help decades before, Levy and his late wife Hilma began providing funding to the DJCF scholarship program in 2005. This year’s recipients, both seniors at University of Texas Dallas, are Sarah Gifford and Richard Liu.
The Levy family includes daughters Dr. Deborah Levy, z”l; Barbara, z”l, (Dr. Arthur) Calick and their son, Dr. Daniel Calick; Julie (Ken) Robinowitz and their children, Jenny (Michael) Walters, Michael Robinowitz and Lauren (Kenny Rubinsztein) Robinowitz; Sharon (Jay) Lipinsky and their children, Sarah Lipinsky, Rachel (Greg) Waldstreicher and Rebecca (Lee) Steinfeld; and the Levys’ great-grandchildren, Emma, Eli and Liam Walters and Jackson, Lincoln and Warren Waldstreicher.
The Levys’ commitment to heritage resounds through the next generations, memories of their grandparents’ dedication to them abound.
“Even though I grew up in Southern California, I always felt important to my grandparents and whenever they came to visit they were up for anything — a visit to the comic book store, to watch me skateboard, whatever it was,” said Daniel Calick. “I now visit my grandfather at The Forum, and he very proudly hosts me and introduces me to everyone. At shul, he’s so popular and everyone is so excited to be near him.”
Lauren Robinowitz says her Opa’s memory is incredible. “There’s almost nothing he can’t remember and talk about in complete detail,” said Robinowitz, whose own memories include her grandparents attending whatever program their grandchildren were in, private visits and lunch dates, after which they’d visit the dollhouse store. “He’s very funny and he spreads joy no matter what’s going on in the world. He’s a man who lived through really tough times but only wants to spread light.”
The Lipinsky home was just 11 houses away from the Levys’ when the children were growing up. For Rachel Waldstreicher, it is every Shabbat dinner, and so much time spent together, that she treasures.
“They always had great toys and he had the most interesting things in his office. His chair, which I used to love to spin around in, is in my childhood room,” Waldstreicher said. “Wherever we were, they wanted to be there too. Jackson is only 5, but he understands 100 is a big deal. He gets that it’s his Omi’s daddy and he’s been so excited to come celebrate. We all are.”
“Choose your attitude” is a lesson Levy has taught his family. For one born in a difficult season, celebrating 100 years in this day, clearly taking his own advice has brought him shehechiyanu, to this occasion.