Habitat is honored to announce that the Monroe Temple Beth-El and the greater community of Orange County have partnered to build “Mike’s House,” a project to build a home with Habitat for Humanity of Greater Newburgh and honor the memory of Mike Levine.
Many knew Mike through his years of writing at the Times Herald-Record and his many contributions to our community.
The following is an essay written by his wife, Ellen Levine:
I used to tell my husband, quite often, that he was a “most remarkable man.”
Of course, he wouldn’t buy it.
“Get outta here,” he’d say. “I’m so flawed! Why, I can’t even follow the directions on the back of a box of rice! I can’t keep the inside of my car from turning into a garbage dump!”
He’d launch into a blur of hand motions, begin his endless pacing, adding, “If you asked me to build a coffee table, I couldn’t.”
He’d grimace, shrug, and hold his hands up empty, to signify his general lack of participation in the physical world.
It was true. When it came to putting items into order, he got all tangled up. When it came to building anything, he was all thumbs.
But, I would tell him, “Still, you are a most remarkable man. Look what you build. Look how you bring people together. Look what you are able to accomplish.”
I think I had a point.
He could build what we feel, but can’t touch. When it came to words, ideas, relationships and communities of folks that depend on each other, he was all about building.
Mike Levine’s gift was that he could draw us together by pointing out what it was that connected us to each other, and all of us to something greater than ourselves.
Mike was a wordsmith; he so carefully chose his words. From there, he built sentences, and sentences into paragraphs and paragraphs into stories that could lift you to the peaks.
Actually, when he spoke about his writing, he talked almost as though he were a carpenter or an architect.
First, there is the foundation, the background – although you don’t want to pour it all at once in the beginning, like you might think.
He would consider the arc of a story – how quickly should it build, or should we save some for later?
And then, where should the highest point be? When do you let up on the hard part, and go soft on the obvious? Or, here’s where you hammer away at it!
He was famous at the newspaper for demanding one last read-through. Is this word the correct “shade"? Known as relentless, he continued to ask, “Did we get it right?”
I think Mike’s boys, Ben and Sam, got it right when they wrote a letter to their dad, published in the Times Herald-Record on Jan. 21, 2007, just a week after he passed:
“From the moment we were born, you taught us to do the right thing. To you, Dad, the 'right thing' was repairing this tattered world into which you brought us. We grew up understanding that not every kid had a safe neighborhood to play in before coming inside to a warm meal. So we walked together in the poor neighborhoods, picking up each burger wrapper and empty cigarette box, just to give back some of the dignity that the people living there so clearly deserved.”
Mike did not believe so much in the idea of charity, with charity being something that someone might do out of the goodness of their heart, or given as a pittance beyond abundance.
Rather, he believed in justice.
He hung onto the understanding that the Hebrew word, “Tzedakah” which is commonly referred to as what is given as charity, is actually taken from the root word, “Tzedek” which means justice.
Everyone, everyone has the right to a roof over their head and food at their table.
If these basic needs aren’t met, then justice has not prevailed. And if an unjust situation exists, it is our duty, our commandment, to see that it is made right.
There were some times when Mike, overwhelmed by what he considered his many flaws, would try to make amends.
He wanted to make something we could see and touch – maybe a chair someone could rest on, or a table we could gather around.
On more than one occasion, he said, “Ellen, I’m going to someday build something.”
I like to think that he meant a house, like the one in his memory, we’re all going to build.