Jewish Home says goodbye to director of 34 years

One must really love his job to stay there for 34 years.

Jerry Levine would agree with that statement, as he has spent almost his entire career in one place: the Jewish Home.

In July, Levine will become executive director emeritus of the San Francisco senior residance that has also been his home, in a sense, for 34 years. He plans to stay on through the end of the year, to make the transition smooth for his replacement, Daniel Ruth.

"If I had to pick a career all over again, I would do it identically," said Levine. "I would do the same thing. Not all lawyers or accountants would say that."

Levine moved to the Bay Area after working two years as director of the Jewish Home in Youngstown, Ohio.

When he arrived, the home was going through a major transition.

"Instead of being a custodial facility that basically housed people, it was turning into a healthcare facility," Levine said.

The home was expanding to include a new building as well as medical clinics. Former director Sidney Friedman, a social worker, recognized that someone with a healthcare and business background could be beneficial to have on the staff.

Levine fit that bill, and in 1969 he joined the staff as assistant director. In 1980, he became executive director.

Then the home, which was founded in 1871 at the same Silver Avenue location it occupies today, was in only one building, which housed 150 people.

Now there are three other buildings, where 630 staff members work to accommodate 430 residents.

There were other differences when he started, too. "When I came here we had a budget that was $3 million," said Levine. "Now it's $40 million. It's a different ballgame."

While Levine is known for his modesty, he listed his staff as his greatest accomplishment. "I've developed a committed staff to quality of care, especially the supervisory department head-level staff."

Levine has noticed many changes in the healthcare field since he started. One major shift is that residents of facilities weren't always that ill. "People used to come to a place like this because they had no other place to go to," he said.

These days, people would prefer to remain at home, if possible.

"Today, people come to a nursing home or chronic disease hospital when they're very sick," said Levine, meaning the facility must offer much more in the way of services.

"When you come here, you get what you need," he said, noting that most residents of the home are on a fixed income and are participants of the Medi-Cal program.

The government only pays at a certain level, said Levine, and "our standards are higher than that level."

In most facilities for the elderly, residents share rooms. "You can't give care in a dignified manner with that type of layout," he said. At the Jewish Home, despite the fact that residents are of modest means, the majority of them have private rooms.

The home offers residents every type of care they may need except surgery, said Levine, adding that in recent years doctors on staff have begun incorporating alternative medicine, like acupuncture and herbal remedies into the services offered.

When asked to give the highlight of his time at the home, Levine said, "I enjoyed the job mostly because of the people I work with, the professional and lay staff, the board and the residents. When I see the things we do for the residents, in their twilight years, I feel very good about that."

Sandra Epstein, the home's administrator, is the first to say that Levine is too modest about his achievements.

"He finds it hard to take credit for his accomplishments, but rather puts others out in front for the acclaim. His sense of humor diffuses even the most stressful situations, while his direct manner forces hard-thinking responses."

Furthermore, while Levine is known to be a "numbers man," she said, "he is able to put that aside when an indigent applicant needs admission, when a family under stress needs assistance, and when an employee comes into hard times. He also is known to provide special wedding, birth or graduation gifts to staff and their families, as well as extra money for gambling for residents headed for Reno."

When he officially retires in 2003, Levine will be 64. He hopes to do some traveling with his wife, Sharon. He would also like to take some courses, specifically in the humanities. He wants to do some volunteer work, specifically in helping the elderly navigate the system — "I'm pretty good at that," he said.

And he'd like to get into shape.

Levine described his longevity at the home this way: "I sometimes take myself too seriously. The best thing to remember in working with geriatrics is have a sense of humor."

Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."