Local News

Family Owned & Proud of It

2014-08-21 10:15:39 ebrown
Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)

Levinson Funeral Home (Photographs by Alan Gilbert)

For most people, a bad day at the office might involve bad coffee, an angry customer or a tidal wave of emails. For the Levinson family, all of that pales in comparison to burying a child, something it does on a relatively regular basis.

“There’s no room for mistakes here,” said Matt Levinson, the fifth generation of Levinsons to enter the business.

At a time when large corporations dominate the funeral industry, Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home is a rarity. When Matt joined the staff full time in 2005, the business entered into rare company. A 2012 USA Today article cited estimates that out of the 5 million family businesses in the U.S., one in three is operated by the second generation. Only one in every 500 is sixth-generation run.

While Levinson’s has become a Baltimore institution over the century it has existed, the situation is different elsewhere.

The National Funeral Directors Association estimates that the employment of funeral service workers will grow 12 percent from 2012 to 2022, and revenue, which has been steadily increasing across the industry, is expected to increase to $16.2 billion by the end of 2014. But while the funeral industry has been gaining steam, the number of funeral homes in the United States has been gradually declining. In the decade between 2003 and 2013, the number of homes registered with the National Directory of Morticians Redbook slipped by more than 2,200.

Part of the reason behind the decrease might be the growth of large funeral service companies that often purchase privately owned funeral homes and cemeteries, forcing regional competitors out or merging smaller businesses together.

Waves were made 40 miles south in the fall when Service Corporation International, the nation’s largest funeral service provider, sought to acquire Stewart Enterprises, the country’s second-largest funeral service provider.

At the center of the unrest in Washington was the Hines-Rinaldi Funeral Home of Silver Spring, which was owned by Stewart Enterprises and had a contract with the Jewish Funeral Practices Committee that ensured the availability of low-cost funerals to those who requested it. The community feared that SCI would not renew the contract, and the cost of burying a loved one would skyrocket. The merger has since been permitted by the Federal Trade Commission on the condition that the new combined company sell off 91 of its locations.

Elsewhere, SCI has gained a reputation for complaints of deceptive sales tactics, desecration of graves and mishandling remains of the deceased, according to a July 2014 Philadelphia Inquirer article that cited lawsuit settlements of $14 million, $80 million and $100 million in California and Florida.

Also read, “How much does a funeral cost?”

In the 1990s, the Levinsons say, SCI tried to purchase the funeral home, but the Baltimore community convinced the family to decline the offer.

“We’re proud to still be family owned,” said Matt, adding that not a lot of communities have the option of a family-owned Jewish funeral home available to them anymore when they find themselves having to bury a loved one.

Beth El Congregation’s Rabbi Steven Schwartz has officiated funerals all over the mid-Atlantic but said Sol Levinson sets the bar on Jewish funeral services.

“Levinson’s is the cream of the crop,” said Schwartz. Going to other funeral homes after working with Levinson’s, he added, is “like a different world.”

A major part of why the family’s business has been so successful, Schwartz speculates, in addition to the professionalism the company brings to every occasion, is how involved the Levinsons are in the Baltimore Jewish community.

“In Baltimore you have the whole dynamic of everybody in the Jewish community knowing everybody else,” said Schwartz. “There’s something nice about it, and when you go into Levinson’s, they know your family, probably. It’s that sense of community.”

Three generations of the Levinson family. From left: Stanley Levinson, Ellensue Levinson-Jeffers, Ira Levinson, Matt Levinson and Burton Levinson

Three generations of the Levinson family. From left: Stanley Levinson, Ellensue Levinson-Jeffers, Ira Levinson, Matt Levinson and Burton Levinson

The Levinson family began its venture into the funerary industry in the 1880s, when Max Levinson, a Russian immigrant, began work transporting the deceased to the cemetery for burial. After working in the transport business for a while, he transitioned into funeral home ownership.

In 1904, Max Levinson’s original funeral home on High Street burned down in the Baltimore fire, and in 1911 he reopened shop at 1127 E. Baltimore St.

The second generation of Levinsons joined the industry after World War I, when brothers Sol and Emanuel transitioned from positions with the government’s grave registration department and were later joined by another brother, David.

In the 1940s and 1950s, the third generation of Levinsons began working at the funeral home, now located on North Avenue.

When the Jewish community moved to the Northwest part of Baltimore, Levinson’s followed, opening a location on Reisterstown Road, as the fourth generation was preparing to enter the field.

For almost 40 years the funeral home remained at 6010 Reisterstown Road, just north of Northern Parkway, but when siblings Ira, Irv and Ellensure noticed the Jewish community was again spreading north, they made the decision to relocate, this time to 8900 Reisterstown Road.

Today, the Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home sits on 6.5 acres, just a mile north of the I-695.

The 2,700-square-foot building is designed for maximum funeral service efficiency. With two chapels available for services, one with a 400-person capacity and another with a capacity of 150, the Levinsons pride themselves on being able to provide clients with every amenity imaginable. This also includes stone from Jerusalem in the main chapel, three arrangement offices, a clergy office, multiple receiving rooms, carports for the mourning family’s transportation and a bereavement library, where families can access after-care services such as lectures, books and support groups. The staff even includes two full-time cleaning personnel and a funeral director rotation that ensures a director is at the funeral home and available for consult 24 hours a day. In addition, Levinson’s control room looks more like a police headquarters than what one might expect in a funeral parlor. Stark white with an entire wall devoted to a dry-erase-marker-and-notecard schedule, Levinson staff members keep an eye on the property through the lenses of four security camera monitors in the front center of the room. In June, Levinson opened a Columbia office to more easily accommodate Howard County clients.

“Our policy is if you do something, do it right or don’t do it at all,” said Ira. And, though the Levinsons haven’t had local competition in nearly three decades —  the Lewis family funeral home, Levinson’s last big competitor, closed in the 1960s, and another, smaller home that opened in the 1980s was short-lived —  they make it a point to run their business as if there is a competitor at the other end of the block.

“We try not to run this business like it’s a business,” said Ira. “We just try to always do the right thing.”

When Steve Levin lost his father, Jake, in March, the Levinson staff made the process of burying a loved one just a little bit less painful.

“My father’s wish was that it be a graveside service, but that was before he went to the [Envoy] nursing home,” said Levin. “During his six years there, he met so many people and so many people took to him that we were starting to get calls about lots of people wanting to come, so we decided instead of the graveside we’d have the service at Levinson’s.”

After reserving the smaller chapel, the family had to make a last-minute decision to relocate to the larger room. The staff at Levinson’s, he said, was more than accommodating.

“The thing that struck me was how gracious they were in accepting the changes and how efficient they were in taking care of them immediately,” he said. “They’re very professional and gracious.”

Laure Gutman, head of the local chevra kadisha, which oversees Jewish funeral practices to ensure religious law is obeyed, praised the Levinson staff’s knowledge of Jewish tradition and customs.

“I think Levinson’s really has a handle on Baltimore Jewry. You don’t get that from somebody who lives in Tampa,” Gutman said. “We are unique in so many ways, and they accommodate. They accommodate the Conservative family that has Orthodox grandchildren, and they know how to do it so that everyone has the sense that ‘we did the right thing.’ In many ways, it takes a Baltimorean to really understand Jewish Baltimore.”

In an organization where so much depends on cooperation from the funeral home, Gutman feels lucky to be working in Baltimore.

“If we want to do taharas at midnight, they have somebody on staff who would be there in case we have any problems or we have any questions,” she said. “They are so accommodating to what anybody wants to do. I don’t think there’s anything else [besides Levinson’s] in the Jewish world that we only need one of, because they do such a good job.”


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New Lease on Life

2014-08-21 10:10:10 ebrown

Not many people who battle drug addiction and Hepatitis C live to tell about it. Yet, 62-year-old Baltimorean and former county drug czar Mike Gimbel fought and conquered both.

Mike Gimbel, a Hepatitis C survivor, battled back from heroin addiction (below, when he was admitted to rehab) to a 25-year career as director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse. (Photos provided)

Mike Gimbel, a Hepatitis C survivor, battled back from heroin addiction (below, when he was admitted to rehab) to a 25-year career as director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse. (Photos provided)

Gimbel, a former heroin addict, spent his teenage years leading a double life. By day, he was a typical Jewish boy from Pikesville. By night, he was scouring the streets of Baltimore for drugs. Nearly bankrupting his family, Gimbel spent about $250 a day to satisfy his drug habit.

“I had no idea what long-term damage I was doing to my body,” he said. “To be honest, I’m lucky I made it to 20.”

After several near-death overdoses, his parents convinced him to admit himself to Synanon, a drug rehabilitation center in Santa Monica, Calif. “I was so far gone that I overdosed on the airplane to the treatment center,” he said. “My dad is my Schindler. He, along with my mom, saved my life and gave me a second chance.”

Gimbel returned home sober seven years later and quickly made a name in the drug-prevention world. Transformed from Jewish junkie to drug czar, Gimbel became the first director of Baltimore County’s Office of Substance Abuse in 1980 and served for 25 years. Despite nearly 43 years of sobriety and a career in drug prevention, Gimbel feared that repercussions from his drug abuse would steal years away from his life. A doctor’s diagnosis confirmed those fears.

In 1998, Gimbel learned he had contracted Hepatitis C from sharing dirty needles during his years of drug use. Though he had no physical symptoms, his liver enzyme levels were rapidly increasing. He enlisted the help of gastroenterologist Anurag Maheshwari at Mercy Medical Center to carefully monitor his health until the right treatment came along.

“It was like playing Russian roulette,” said Gimbel. “I wanted to bet my chances and hold off for the best cure possible. In July, Dr. Maheshwari told me about a new drug being developed, Sovaldi. I asked him when it would be approved by the FDA. He told me Dec. 6, 2013. I made an appointment for Dec. 7.”

With an 80 to 90 percent cure rate, Sovaldi is a medical breakthrough for patients with Hepatitis C. Developed by an American biopharmaceutical company, Gilead, Sovaldi is an NS5B inhibitor, which means it prevents the Hepatitis C virus from replicating in the body’s RNA.

A single Hepatitis C virus can multiply up to a million copies in a day, but the drug can stop it from multiplying and ultimately cure the disease, said Maheshwari.

“For the first time, we have a treatment that cures Hepatitis C quickly and with fewer side effects,” said Maheshwari. “We always knew Hepatitis C is a curable disease, but Sovaldi is a potent inhibitor. In just 12 weeks of medication, patients are done with Hepatitis C for life.”

Sovaldi on its own will not cure Hepatitis C. For 12 weeks, Gimbel took one Sovaldi daily and two RibaPaks, an antiviral medication that reduces the amount of Hepatitis C virus in the body, and one weekly injection of PEGASYS, an interferon protein that augments the patient’s immune system. Within one month, his Hepatitis C was undetected in his blood work.

082214_hepatitis1“It is still surreal to me,” said Gimbel. “I still can’t believe it. They monitored my blood work for 12 more weeks once I went off Sovaldi. After all these years, I cannot believe [my Hepatitis C] is finally gone.”

However, Sovaldi comes at a steep cost.

Priced at $1,000 a pill, the total cost for Sovaldi is $84,000 for the prescribed 12-week period. Once patients add in costs for other medications and medical assistance, Hepatitis C treatment can easily top $150,000. Not all patients can afford treatment; Gimbel’s insurance covered his costs.

In 1991, Joel Bernstein was doing his job as a physician’s assistant at Sinai Hospital.

“With one simple needle cutting my thumb, I got stuck with Hepatitis C,” said Bernstein. Since then he needed and received a liver transplant, endured fevers of more than 105 degrees and suffered from general bad health. Bernstein has been unemployed since 1998 due to the disease.

Bernstein cannot afford insurance that would cover the costs: “It is hard knowing there is a magic pill to cure me but that I cannot get it,” he said. “I do not have the funds to cover $1,000 a pill.”

It is no surprise to Maheshwari that Sovaldi comes with such a large price tag. “They have a short window of time where they have a monopoly,” he said. “There are similar medications being developed to Sovaldi that will be approved later this year. As the competition heats up, the price will go down.”

Bernstein hopes to raise money to fund his treatment despite its high cost.

“My Hepatitis C is active and progressive,” said Bernstein. “It is a full-body disease and affects all aspects of my health. If I could cure my Hepatitis C, it would be a huge weight lifted off my shoulders. I would frame my blood results and bow down to them every night.”

More than three million Americans suffer from Hepatitis C. Passed through blood transmission, Hepatitis C can be spread by sharing needles and sexual contact, among other ways. Nicknamed the silent disease, Hepatitis C can lie undetected for decades without proper testing.

According to a United States Health and Human Services’ 2011 report, 65 to 75 percent of infected Americans remain unaware of their Hepatitis C status. Conversely, Hepatitis C has surpassed HIV/AIDS as a leading cause of death in the U.S. and is the leading cause of liver cancer and liver transplantation in the country.

“I was a ticking time bomb,” said Gimbel. “If I had not gotten tested, I never would have known I had it. I especially encourage the baby boomers, individuals born between 1945 and 1964, to get screened because that generation makes up more than 75 percent of Hepatitis C victims.”

Maheshwari also emphasized the importance of getting tested and raising awareness about Hepatitis C.

“We come across patients who either do not know that they have it or feel like they have to live with the disease forever,” he said. “Hepatitis C is a curable disease, and there is no reason to live with it for the rest of your life. With new medical breakthroughs like Sovaldi, you can get cured in 12 weeks.”

For Gimbel, access to Sovaldi has been like a new lease on life.

“I feel like I’ve cheated death twice, said Gimbel. “I was lucky enough to survive my heroin addiction, but I never thought I would be cured of Hepatitis C. I always figured I would need a liver transplant or die of liver disease. It is a medical miracle.”

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

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In It Together

2014-08-21 10:00:40 ebrown
Nadav Korman (middle left) and Andy Sokal (middle right) pose with their  instructor, Jennifer Lake, and Lake’s  father, the founder of CSA, Douglas Lake, after receiving their black belts. Below: Sokal and Korman test for their black belts at he Owings Mills JCC. (Photos Provided)

Nadav Korman (middle left) and Andy Sokal (middle right) pose with their
instructor, Jennifer Lake, and Lake’s
father, the founder of CSA, Douglas Lake, after receiving their black belts. Below: Sokal and Korman test for their black belts at he Owings Mills JCC. (Photos Provided)

History was made last Sunday at the Owings Mills Jewish Community Center when two martial arts students tested and achieved their black belts in karate.

After more than a decade of study, practice and hard work, Nadav Korman, 18, and Andy Sokal, 23, completed the final stage of their testing Sunday morning with friends and family looking on.

“It was the greatest experience,” said Korman.

“It was really awesome and unique,” added Sokal.

Both men began their journey to the black belt level around age 10. For Korman, it was a way to learn how to defend himself against school bullies and get active. For Sokal, it was a way to learn life skills that could help him cope with his autism.

Korman’s parents signed him up at the age of 8 after trying unsuccessfully to get him involved in other sports and to combat lower school bullying, which got so bad that he suffered a broken back after being shoved down some stairs. Through it all, karate offered Korman an outlet and a group of friends he could rely on.

082214_blackbelt2Sokal began lessons at 10 years old. He took a liking to the sport from the start, he said, and the opportunity to teach it, which both have done for years, has only grown his love of karate.

“I’m really proud of it,” he said of being able to teach young students.

Their teacher, Jennifer Lake, head instructor at the Comprehensive Survival Arts (CSA) Martial Arts and Wellness School at the JCC, couldn’t think of a time when she had been more proud of any of her students.

“It was really emotional for me,” she said of watching the pair complete the final part of their test last weekend. “It was the culmination of years of hard work.”

That work involved getting to the karate studio at about 6:45 every morning to work out until students arrived for lessons, which they taught. After classes were over for the day, the pair would put in another half hour of practice before heading home. They also incorporated running, tai chi, kickboxing and other training into their own workouts to improve their strength and stamina.

For Lake and CSA, it was the first time in six years that the program gave out a black belt. For the younger kids in the classes, Korman and Sokal are an inspiration, she said. But while the final test showed off both men’s mastery of the physical skills involved in karate, they said the accompanying mental and emotional benefits of years of karate were, in some ways, even more gratifying than the ability to precisely execute each move.

At the end of this month, Korman will leave Baltimore for yeshiva in Beit Shmesh, where he knows no one. As part of his schooling, he must give back to the community in some way, so he plans to teach karate to underprivileged children. Though he’ll have to start over in a new place, the ability to spend a portion of his time in a familiar setting doing what he loves makes him more confident.

For Sokal, the nest stage involves swapping his sweats for business attire, as he begins to search for a job in the computer science industry. He completed his bachelor’s degree at Towson University in the spring and said karate has given him the confidence to approach the workforce head-on. Because of karate, he said, he no longer fears public speaking, and he has the self-assuredness he needs to approach job interviews with confidence.

“[Having a black belt] is a good thing to put on a resume; it shows that you have discipline and you can work hard whenever they ask you to,” he said, adding that a few stripes on the new black belt might also look nice.


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Inspired Silver

2014-08-21 10:00:30 ebrown
Jeweler Doron Cohen creates delicate silver filigree jewelry inspired by Torah and Kabbalah. His studio is based in Safed, Israel, and he is touring the East Coast this month. (Provided)

Jeweler Doron Cohen creates delicate silver filigree jewelry inspired by Torah and Kabbalah. His studio is based in Safed, Israel, and he is touring the East Coast this month. (Provided)

From the cobblestone steps of the Old City to Jewish community centers across the East Coast, Doron Cohen, owner of Doron Gallery and highly acclaimed filigree jeweler, transports the spirit of Safed, Israel to America this summer.

Born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan, Cohen followed in the footsteps of his parents, Yemenite jewelers.

“I was inspired by a dream,” said Cohen. “I woke up that night and told my parents I wanted to learn their art. Within two weeks, I was handcrafting my own jewelry. It was in my blood.”

He launched his jewelry career at the age of 23 and made fast strides in the art of filigree —  a delicate metalwork process. He then opened his own studio in Safed’s famed artist colony 13 years ago.

One of Safed’s premier jewelers, Cohen is currently in the midst of a U.S. tour that he hopes will boost sales to make up for this year’s decline in business due to Operation Protective Edge. Leaving his wife and 10 children in Safed, Cohen is venturing up and down the East Coast for three-and-a-half weeks with assistance from 17-year-old Baltimore native Eliezer Vogel, his manager and coordinator for the sales. Vogel and Cohen met last year in Safed, when Vogel took a summer job at an art gallery, working to save up money for a second year at Yeshiva.

“The idea of the sale is to bring the jeweler from Northern Israel to you,” Cohen said. “With tourism dropping in Israel this year, I came to the tourists instead of waiting for the tourists to come to me.”

Since the onset of Operation Protective Edge, tourism has plummeted significantly in Israel. Small cities such as Safed rely primarily on tourist traffic to support their economy. According to recent reports, Israel is forecast to lose roughly $500 million in income for the third quarter due to a sharp decline in tourism during the peak summer season. As a favorite stop among Taglit Birthright and other organized groups, Cohen personally experienced an 80 percent drop in income due to the dwindling number of tourists visiting Israel this summer.

“Due to Operation Protective Edge, we went from having packed stores to one or two customers a day,” said Cohen. “This is not normal for Israel in the height of tourist season. Israel lost over one million tourists this year due to canceled trips.”

As one of Safed’s most popular jewelers, Cohen hopes his unique artwork will attract customers on the road in the U.S. While some stops have been successful, others have been sparse.

“We have relied mostly on social media, websites and word of mouth,” said Vogel. “We’ve grown our Facebook page tremendously and publicize our events as much as possible there.”

Vogel handles the business side of the tour, and Cohen focuses on the products.

Cohen combines technique, talent and Torah in his handcrafted art and intertwines spiritual Kabbalah values with innovative filigree ideas. Jewish mysticism influences many of his designs.

“My jewelry comes with good energy,” said Cohen. “I find beauty in the Torah and Kabbalah content. Safed is the birthplace of Kabbalah, so my art should reflect it.” Cohen added that when pop icon Madonna visited Safed, the mayor called upon him to create a gift, and he chose a necklace that combined a Star of David and Tree of Life. “Out of all the artists in Safed, I was honored he picked me.”

Other works are inspired by biblical stories, and some pieces represent popular Jewish symbols. For example, his popular Chamsa (Jewish protection symbol) and Shema rings are some of his bestsellers.

Selling both his own handiwork and selections from other Safed artists, Cohen’s traveling jewelry store features necklaces, bracelets, rings, pendants, Kiddush cups, mezuzot, candlesticks and other Judaic pieces. Setting up one-day sales throughout the East Coast, Cohen’s stops include Florida, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and Rockville, among others.

“We call the sale, ‘East Coast Straight from Israel,’” said Vogel.

“He doesn’t just sell you his jewelry, he sells you his blessing,” said Yisroel Vogel, Eliezer’s father and supporter of Cohen. “His jewelry radiates positivity and spirituality.”

Cohen stopped at the Owings Mills JCC and Park Heights JCC last week and will be back in Maryland on Aug. 28 from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. for a one-day event at the Jewish Community Center of Greater Washington (6125 Montrose Road, Rockville). For more information, visit dorongallery.com.

Allie Freedman is a local freelance writer.

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Three JCC Lifeguards Honored

2014-08-21 10:00:28 ebrown
JCC lifeguards Jalina Ray (left), Andrew Minkin and Jennifer Siegel have a new appreciation for the importance of their jobs. (Provided)

JCC lifeguards Jalina Ray (left), Andrew Minkin and Jennifer Siegel have a new appreciation for the importance of their jobs. (Provided)

Earlier this summer, JCC lifeguards Andrew Minkin, Jalina Ray and Jennifer Siegel’s skills were put to the test. Fortunately, all three of the Red Cross-trained lifeguards passed with flying colors, saving the life of a young boy.

When Ray spotted an 8-year-old swimmer, wearing a mask and snorkel, who seemed to be struggling in the pool, she consulted with Minkin. “I couldn’t really tell if he was just playing under water, or in danger and we didn’t want to alarm everybody,” said the 19-year-old. Minkin dove in and pulled the boy out of the water while Ray activated the team’s emergency-action plan.

Once the boy was out of the pool, Minkin began a preliminary assessment while Siegel, the lifeguard for the JCC’s aquatics camp, assisted. “I laid the boy flat on the ground and checked for breathing and a pulse, while Andrew prepared a CPR mask and cleared the area,” recalled Siegel, 18.

After receiving the rescue breaths, the youngster, who was not breathing on his own, began vomiting, so the lifeguards turned him on his side to clear his airway. The team notified emergency medical services and administered emergency oxygen until EMS arrived to take him to the hospital.

It was later determined that water had entered the boy’s snorkel, leading to an asthma attack. As he attempted to catch his breath, he removed his snorkel under water, inhaled more water and then lost consciousness.

“I knew that I had a huge responsibility but it didn’t faze me that I was saving a life,” said Siegel. “I was doing what I was trained to do and none of the guards hesitated about how to assist him,” said Siegel.

“Initially, I was in shock,” said Ray. “I have worked as a lifeguard for the JCC for five years and never had a save. At the end of the day, the training really did come in handy. I’m happy to say we got him out in time.”

Siegel agreed. “I’m happy that our outcome was a good one. It felt good knowing that we saved a life, especially that of an 8-year-old. I feel very differently about being a lifeguard after this. I definitely understand the importance of our job after experiencing firsthand, that a lifeguard can change the outcome of a life or death situation.”

Due to their skillfulness, Minkin, an incoming senior at McDonogh School who’s in his third year of lifeguarding at the JCC, Ray, an incoming sophomore in veterinary science at Tuskegee University who’s in her fifth season as a JCC swim instructor and lifeguard, and Siegel, an incoming freshman at Penn State who’s in her third season as a JCC swim instructor and lifeguard, were honored by the American Red Cross in a ceremony at the JCC on Aug. 14. All three received certificates and pins in recognition of their heroic efforts and lifesaving skills.


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