Robert Levison, JCF board member and Stanford Hillel chair, dies at 78

Adina Danzig recalls a colleague once asking her what the Hebrew word for saint was. Danzig, the executive director of Hillel at Stanford, explained that “tzadik” was a better term, and that it meant “righteous person.”

When she asked why, he replied, “I was trying to think of a word to describe Robert Levison.”

Levison, who served as president of the Hillel at Stanford board from 2000 to 2004 as well as many other Jewish organizations, died Monday, Feb. 20 at home in Atherton. He was 78.

Levison was born March 17, 1927 in San Francisco. A third-generation San Franciscan, his ancestors came to California in 1850.

Levison attended Lowell High School and Stanford University, and his family attended Congregation Emanu-El.

He took a break from college to join the U.S. Navy during the last year of World War II. He reentered Stanford upon his return, graduating in 1948.

While at Stanford, he was set up on a blind date with fellow Stanford student Anne Lehmann, and married her in 1949. He then joined his family business, Levison Brothers, an insurance company. He stayed with that company until it merged with another insurance business, creating Dinner Levison, for which he served as CEO. In 1983, it was sold to Transamerica, and Levison continued to work there until his retirement in 1997.

His grandfather, who helped found the Federation of Jewish Charities in 1909, instilled in him a strong ethic for community service.

He was among the founders of Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills.

He also served in a number of capacities at the S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation. At JCF, he served as chair of the Committee on Education and Youth, and was also involved with the Jewish Community Endowment Fund. He also served as a member of the federation’s Planning and Agency Support Committee.

Phyllis Cook, director of the Endowment Fund, complimented Levison for his “focus, his steady commitment and his good business judgment.”

She continued, “With his many talents and interests, he had many options for community service, so we were very fortunate that he lent his energy and resources to the Jewish community. He understood the power of community, and gracefully got people to work together.”

In 1999, Levison was awarded the Robert Sinton Extraordinary Leader of the Year award by the JCF.

He also served as chairman of the board for Mt. Zion Health Systems, and on the boards of the National Conference of Christians and Jews, Jewish Family and Children’s Services, Palo Alto Medical Research Foundation, the Resource Center for Women, and Rhoda Goldman Plaza.

As board chair of Hillel at Stanford, Levison became like a project manager for the construction of the Ziff Center for Jewish Life, Adina Danzig said.

“Throughout the project, he balanced the program and space needs of students and staff, as well as cost considerations to ensure the fiscal responsibility and health of Hillel,” she said, adding that after they moved in, he could often be found on the center’s grounds, making small physical improvements to the building.

“Robert was greater than life, a teacher, a perpetual student, giving, wise and humble,” said Danzig. “He was an inspiration and role model.”

He also loved the outdoors, with Lake Tahoe being a second home and the spot of many family vacations and ski trips.

Levison is survived by his wife, Anne Lehmann Levison of Atherton, sisters Ruth Halperin of Atherton and Barbara Napolitano of Bethesda, Md., sons James Levison and David Levison of Atherton, daughters Joan Levison of Mill Valley and Marta Levison of Atherton, and nine grandchildren.

A memorial service will be held at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills at 2 p.m. Sunday, March 26.

Donations can be sent to Hillel at Stanford, P.O. Box 20526, Stanford, CA 94309 or the League to Save Lake Tahoe, 955 Emerald Bay Road, South Lake Tahoe, CA 96150.

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."