Robert LeVine, 71; helped Russian Jews with funerals

By Emma Stickgold
Globe Correspondent / August 13, 2009

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When scores of Jewish immigrants were pouring into the Boston area from former Soviet republics in the 1980s and 1990s, Robert William LeVine started studying Russian, and got to know community members.

Many of them had not been able to practice their religion during Soviet times, and they were unfamiliar with customs and traditions. And while funeral arrangements can be costly, Mr. LeVine made sure families from this often low-income community were given a proper Jewish funeral at Stanetsky Memorial Chapels in Brookline, where he was a director for decades.

Mr. LeVine, “was very bright,’’ said Florence Pressman, executive director of Jewish Funeral Directors of America, a group Mr. LeVine also led for a time. “He had a lot of ideas, and he had incredible follow-through. People trusted him and spoke very candidly. I think his love for the profession came through in everything he did.’’

On Tuesday, Mr. LeVine died at Wingate Healthcare in Needham of complications of leukemia. He was 71.

“He was very meticulous, and he was very caring and concerned about all the families,’’ longtime colleague and business partner Manny Golov said. “He wanted to make sure everything was done to the best of his ability and to make sure all the family’s needs were satisfied.’’

For a population finally able to openly form ties to their Jewish roots, Mr. LeVine was able to communicate the rituals that the Russian-speaking community had not had the opportunity to follow.

While the grieving and burial traditions in the former Soviet Union were quite different from the Jewish-American traditions, he bridged that gap, colleagues and family said.

He hired a translator to help him make sure they knew that rabbis could not officiate with an open casket and in other areas where cultural differences needed to be melded to help grieving families.

He assisted Jewish immigrants from former Soviet republics get burial plots donated, and he felt strongly about bringing his clients out to the cemeteries and letting them choose a plot, rather than having the location assigned.

In the 1980s, when it became clear that Jewish cemeteries were not being as well maintained as they had when a corps of volunteers kept them up to date, he helped form the Jewish Cemetery Association of Massachusetts and served for a time as its president.

“He put his money where his mouth was and put his reputation on the line,’’ said Bruce Schlossberg, who worked with him on the project.

Several Jewish cemeteries in the area had been abandoned, and the association worked to restore them so families could visit graves that were not overgrown and unkempt.

His gentle demeanor often put grieving families at ease, and he was known for mentoring other funeral directors starting out in the business.

He cautioned that the most difficult to handle emotionally were the deaths of children.

“People expect us to be very calm and to be able to take what they see as an impossible situation, and we find a way to make it work.’’ Schlossberg said. “We listen to what people are saying and then do it, and the word no does not enter into our vocabulary.’’

He also implemented a filing system for keeping detailed records on the deceased and their family’s wishes, which covered decades.

Mr. LeVine grew up in Newton, graduating from Newton High School in 1955, and then earning a bachelor’s degree in history from Harvard College in 1959.

He met Suzanne [Golov] on a double blind date while he was an undergraduate, and they married in 1960.

Stanetsky Memorial Chapels was her family’s business, and he was brought on board early on and stayed for about a half-century. He retired in 2001.

He was a familiar face within local Jewish communities.

“He was effervescent, the life of the party, and known for his huge smile,’’ Schlossberg said. “He knew how to work a room and broke the mold.’’

He was known to his golfing buddies at the Pine Brook Country Club, where he served as president in the 1980s, as Digger.

“I know that anywhere I went with dad, he was the mayor; people knew him,’’ said his son Eric of Seattle said. “He was just a warm man who could connect with people and helped people out when they needed it most.’’

In addition to his son and wife, Mr. LeVine leaves two daughters, Heidi Schuster and Melissa Boudreau, both of Newton; seven granddaughters; and one grandson.

Services will be held at 11 a.m. today at Temple Emanuel in Newton. Burial will follow at Sharon Memorial Park in Sharon.