They Paid It Forward: Donors Tres and Ivan Levinsohn

Middah k’neged middah, measure for measure, is a principle taught by our rabbinic sages (Sanhedrin 90a and Shabbat 105b) and supported by biblical examples of individuals whose deeds, good and bad, were repaid over time. A contemporary variation on the theme was described by economist Kenneth Boulding in 1981 when he coined the term “serial reciprocity.” Defined as a cycle that focuses on future rather than on present action, serial reciprocity has been more recently dubbed “paying it forward.” 

Sometimes it can take years, decades, or even generations for cycles of reciprocity to play out. At JTS, one quintessential example of “paying it forward” has been over one-hundred years in the making. Set into motion at the end of the nineteenth century, if not before, it only recently achieved full fruition, resulting in generous gifts to contemporary rabbinical school students in New York and Israel, patrons of The Library, and rabbinical students at the Schechter Institute in Jerusalem.

On that August day in 1899, a Lithuanian-born Jew named Abraham traveled from his modest home in Newark to the New York City docks for the purpose of welcoming his younger brother to the shores of America. His brother, a young scholar named Louis Ginzberg, gratefully accepted lodging from Abraham and his wife, Libby, sharing quarters for ten years with the couple and their four children. That arrangement ended on another summer day in 1909 when Abraham and Libby graciously greeted the latest arrival from Europe—Louis’s bride, Adele. The newlyweds had met in Berlin and married in London, and would settle near The Jewish Theological Seminary, where Louis was employed as a professor of Talmud. The families remained close, and the ties eventually crossed continents and years.

Our story picks up next in South Africa. A Russian Jew named Samuel Levinsohn had left his native St. Petersburg to travel to the southern tip of the African continent, where he was recruited by the British to fight in the Boer War. After the war, he established an import–export business in Johannesburg and met Asher Ginzberg, brother to the two in America. Hearing that Sam was planning a visit to the United States, Asher urged him to call on his niece Sophy, Abraham and Libby’s daughter, while in New York. The meeting was apparently successful, because Sophy married Sam and sailed back with him to South Africa, where the couple welcomed two children, Sylvia and Ivan. After Sam’s untimely death, however, Sophy packed up her small family and returned to America.

Born premature, Ivan was three years old when he came to New York with his sister and mother in 1934. Diagnosed with cerebral palsy, he underwent many less-than-successful operations in attempts to enable him to walk freely. Even so, he got around Manhattan for many years on crutches, and only later in life relied more exclusively on a wheelchair. All who knew him agree that his handicap was a “nonissue" that he never talked about, much less allowed to get in his way.

From an early age he was a fixture at prayer services at JTS, where “Tante Adele” was particularly solicitous of the boy. He lived nearby with his mother, and the family celebrated his bar mitzvah at JTS. Great-uncle Louis and Sophy both died in the 1950s, and although Adele lived on until 1980, her concerns were gradually transferred to her son Eli Ginzberg, who participated with Ivan’s sister Sylvia in keeping an eye out for the young fellow.

As an adult, Ivan was frequently found in The Library of The Jewish Theological Seminary, holding forth in passionate discussions of Jewish history and politics. He had previously studied at the University of Delaware and at Columbia University and audited many courses at JTS. For a while he was employed in the field of rehabilitative and vocational services, but as the years passed, his place of choice was JTS. A gregarious fellow with a big smile, he was also known as one who could talk endlessly and enthusiastically about many topics.

A fortuitous elevator encounter led to his marriage (in the mid-1960s) to Theresa Blumkin. Theresa, raised Orthodox in Seattle, also had physical limitations, stemming from multiple sclerosis and, eventually, diabetes. A graduate of the University of Washington with a Master of Librarianship degree and an MA in Drama Education, she was a JTS student and part-time employee of The Library. The wedding took place at JTS, with a borrowed dormitory suite serving as the bride’s dressing room. Afterward the couple set up housekeeping across the street at 3111 Broadway, a building that over the years was home to many rabbinical school students and their wives.

Tres, as she was known, was no shrinking violet. With long black hair and piercing eyes, tall and husky, she is remembered as “a force to be reckoned with.” Described as very opinionated, very articulate, and very smart, she was also a fast and voracious reader. Since she didn’t have time to waste on the niceties, she sometimes came across as abrasive. Those who knew her well, however, knew that underneath the rough exterior was a golden heart and a golden neshama, and an endless wellspring of concern for those around her.

At JTS, Tres’s study program included courses in Talmud and advanced Talmud, as well as early Judaism and literature. After receiving an MA from Seminary College of Jewish Studies–Teachers Institute in 1979, she enrolled at Union Theological Seminary to pursue a PhD in Religion. When asked by admissions officers why she wanted to earn a doctorate, Tres was quick with a witty reply: “My women’s-libber husband told me to, and a good wife always obeys her husband.” At Union she took many courses over a period of six years, including several semesters of research, but increasing physical problems prevented her from completing the degree.

Although the Levinsohns had no children of their own, they took in a young cousin of Tres’s who had been orphaned at an early age and parented him through adolescence. But their real “children,” or younger siblings, were the dozens of rabbinical school students, and their girlfriends and spouses, whom they befriended and mentored. Ivan met students in The Library and brought them home to meet Tres, and Tres met women and their children while helping to decorate the JTS sukkah, a tradition started by Adele Ginzberg.

One way or another, their book-strewn and journal-draped apartment became a “salon” where young people new to Manhattan and JTS were proffered an endless supply of stimulating intellectual conversation, advice, and Shabbat and holiday meals. The help ranged from hand-holding, to lending money to temporarily cash-strapped students, to the hours Tres spent reading aloud to a blind student who eventually graduated, married, and became a successful social worker. Problem solving, matchmaking, and marital guidance were sometimes part of the package, as was “rebbetzin training” by Tres for young women of the era who were still learning how to keep a traditional Jewish home. One of them recalls the time a group of rabbinical students missed a halakhah class because they had been kashering the Levinsohn home for Pesah. Taking into account their excuse, the professor concluded, “OK, you learned what you needed to know.”

Tres and Ivan openly acknowledged to friends that they were “paying it forward” in appreciation of what they had received from the JTS community—opportunities for learning, employment, and socializing, but most of all, for the feeling of belonging that it gave them. As their physical problems grew, the cycle of reciprocity became mutual as well as serial. While students had always returned the affection and attention that Tres and Ivan showered on them, there was need for concrete assistance as well. Whether wheeling Ivan across the street to The Library and cafeteria or helping Tres in the kitchen, the young people who had received so much support and respect reciprocated in kind, making Tres and Ivan feel special and needed, just as the students had been made to feel.

The teamwork of an exemplary and loving marriage came to an end in 1990 with Tres’s death, but was soon followed by a renewed cycle of serial reciprocity. First came the disclosure that the Rabbi Joel Roth Prize, established by an anonymous donor for an essay in the field of rabbinics, was in fact the gift of Theresa B. Levinsohn. A dedicated student in several of Rabbi Roth’s Talmud classes, she had insisted that her name not be revealed as long as she was alive.

Next came the gift of the talliyot. Tres had long been supportive of rabbinical students’ complaints that Commencement Day did not incorporate sufficient recognition of the spiritual aspect of ordination, concerns that eventually resulted in the creation of the Siyyum ceremony. To add to the sanctity of the moment, Tres Levinsohn endowed a fund to provide the gift of a tallit and tallit bag to each rabbinical school graduate for years to come. Nearly a decade later, one was awarded to a woman who had been part of the Tres-and-Ivan “family” as a teenage rebbetzin-in-training.  Now undergoing ordination as a rabbi, she experienced with a shiver the realization that Tres’s love and support had once more landed directly on her shoulders in a way that could never have been imagined in earlier years.

In 2007, following Ivan’s passing in 2002, the gifts have started to flow once again as the Levinsohns continue to pay it forward, even from the grave: $200,000 to The Library for the acquisition of rare books and manuscripts and another $200,000 for general operating expenses. In line with the directive that additional gifts go to projects of JTS in Israel, $100,000 has been set aside for the Levinsohn Fellows Fund of The Rabbinical School, to provide stipends for students traveling to Israel with children. A final gift of $100,000 will also go to the new campus of the Schechter Institute of Jewish Studies in Jerusalem, where plans are underway to name a classroom in memory of Tres and Ivan Levinsohn.

The Levinsohns are remembered by many as a couple who “gave as much as they got” while creating a full life for themselves at JTS that lasted over twenty-five years. Just as this community filled needs in their own lives, they engaged in countless acts of kindness and generosity directed towards future members of the “family” they held so dear. A cycle of reciprocity that began with gestures of familial support in the 1890s continues to roll forward, shedding warmth and light on JTS students, faculty, and scholars around the world. As an example of the positive force of middah k’neged middah, there can be no richer lesson.