Irving M. Levine, a longtime civil rights activist and community organizer who spent more than 25 years in leadership roles at American Jewish Committee (AJC), died on January 11 in White Plains, NY. He was 94.

Levine joined AJC in 1961 as director of its Ohio office after serving as leader of the Indiana Jewish Community Relations Council. He then moved to AJC’s New York office and chaired New York City’s efforts to desegregate its schools. In 1966, he became director of AJC’s Department of Education and Urban Programming.

The department, often in the face of stiff opposition, advanced ideas toward improving home ownership for those living in poverty and increasing the supply of affordable housing, including building new low-income housing. in 

Levine went on to serve as AJC’s Director of Urban Affairs, Director of the National Project on Ethnic America, National Affairs Director, and Director of the Institute of American Pluralism, which became a leading think tank on American ethnicity.

The Institute’s work was informed by continuing struggles over desegregation, a polarized American society, and rapid changes in demographics in cities and suburbs. Levine was credited with founding a movement called “new pluralism,” whose goal was to initiate a full and frank discussion of diversity while building a framework for healthy multi-ethnic relations, building coalitions among ethnic groups, and fighting bigotry.

As Levine told a 1973 conference on ethnicity in suburban education, public officials had no choice but to acknowledge that neighborhoods, towns, and cities would be forever altered by shifting demographics.

“When you look at suburbia, you’re no longer looking at homogenized middle-class America,’ he said. “There is the veneer of middle-class lifestyles but many, many pieces are falling apart. The suburbs are very complicated.”

The Institute also worked for several years with students, faculty, and administrators at schools in New York City and on Long Island following a spate of antisemitic incidents and racial bigotry. In a 1982 New York Times profile,  Levine said one goal was to show how to “deal positively with the ethnic backgrounds of both the faculty and students by highlighting differences which are not divisive.”

Among those who worked with Levine was Barbara Mikulski, a social worker turned community activist who later served as a U.S. senator representing Maryland for 30 years. She had reached out to Levine during a years-long fight against a highway that would have razed working-class neighborhoods in Baltimore.

Levine helped secure funding from the Ford Foundation to help mount that ultimately successful battle and showed local groups how to build coalitions between Black and white communities based on “mutual respect, mutual needs, and a mutual strategy of neighborhood-by-neighborhood goals,” Mikulski said.

“He was a fighter for social justice and social change and was absolutely committed to making the world a better place,” Mikulski said. “He also wanted to ensure the Jewish community was recognized for its values and had an enduring place in our culture, our economics, and philanthropy.”

Levine received his bachelor’s degree in social work in 1953 from New York University (NYU)  and did graduate work at both NYU and the University of Wisconsin School of Social Work. He was later appointed to the Wisconsin Governor’s Youth Advisory Commission.

Before joining AJC, Levine worked in the Brooklyn office of the American Jewish Congress and then became a consultant for the New York City Commission on Human Rights. He returned to the Midwest as executive director of conferences on civil rights legislation in Indiana and Ohio. Those efforts led to the creation of pathbreaking civil rights laws in those states as well as the establishment of the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.

Along with being a professor and lecturer at several colleges and universities in New York and New Jersey, Levine also produced and narrated the Emmy-award-winning NBC documentary “The Ethnic Factor.”He was often sought out by journalists for insights into race relations and urban affairs. One television appearance led to a slight name change.

As he noted in a 2001 letter to The New York Times, he arrived for an interview with a host miffed because she thought she would be talking to Irving R. Levine, the famed NBC correspondent known, among other things, for his bald head and bow ties. Mr. Levine had neither.

Soon after the interview, which he described as “very flat,” he started using the middle initial of his mother’s maiden name and “just plain Irving Levine,” as he put it, became Irving M. Levine to the world.

Levine is survived by his wife of 72 years, Marion Steier Levine, his children Lori Levine, Michael Levine, and Robert Levine, six grandchildren, and seven great-grandchildren.

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