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.”
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.
“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.”
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.