When Bill and Ina Levine moved from Brooklyn to Arizona in 1960, the Valley had a small, tightknit Jewish community with its locus in central Phoenix. “I thought it was the greatest place I’d ever seen,” said Bill Levine in a 2008 interview with the Arizona Jewish Historical Society.
And now, more than five decades later, Levine is being honored for his many contributions to the Phoenix Jewish community, at an event hosted by the Valley of the Sun Jewish Community Center on Saturday, Nov. 19, at the Arizona Biltmore (see details box).
Levine became involved in Valley real estate and subsequently bought a restaurant called Brookshire’s. That purchase led to owning 60 more restaurants. Looking for a way to promote his brand, Levine turned to billboards. When the rates increased, he started building his own signs. Eventually he co-founded Outdoor Systems, which became the largest advertising/billboard company in the United States. He is now a general partner of Levine Investments, L.P.
While Levine’s three children, Julie, Jonathan and David, were growing up, the family became active members of the Jewish Community Center, then located in Phoenix. “The center was an important part of my family,” Levine said. “My kids played basketball there and my mother and father used to go there very often.”
When Ina died in 1999, Bill sought to create a memorial for her that reflected her devotion to Judaism and Jewish causes. The existing JCC in Phoenix was looking for a new home, so Bill purchased 30 acres at Sweetwater and Scottsdale Road and donated the land to build the Ina Levine Jewish Community Campus. Community leaders envisioned a campus that would house the JCC, community agencies and a school.
“The JCC has always been a passion for Bill,” said Steve Hilton, Chairman and CEO of Meritage Homes and a board member of the Jewish Federation of Greater Phoenix. “I took Bill out to the site at Scottsdale Road and Sweetwater one Sunday and he fell in love with the location. He put up all the money and we bought it. It was a big gift and the campus wouldn’t be there today if it wasn’t for him.”
Levine’s generosity has also benefited the United States Memorial Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C. His gift “will advance Holocaust education throughout the United States and abroad, enabling the museum to substantially expand and diversify its audiences with special emphasis on youth,” according to a museum press release. The museum’s National Institute for Holocaust Education was renamed the Levine Institute for Holocaust Education.
The Holocaust has been an overriding concern for Levine since childhood. “I have distinct memories of when I first learned about the Holocaust as a young student at the Yeshiva of Flatbush during World War II. It was hard to believe what was happening to the Jews of Europe. Even today it seems unthinkable, and that’s why education is so important,” Levine said in the AZJHS interview.
Reflecting on Levine’s generosity, Hilton said, “If you asked me to describe him in one word, it would be mensch. He’s like nobody else. He doesn’t need committees. If he wants to do something, he just does it.”
The Phoenix Jewish community – which today has grown to an estimated 100,000 individuals – has benefited greatly from Levine’s generosity, Hilton said. “He has supported not only the Federation, but many, many Jewish constituent agencies in the community over the years. I’m sure there are a lot of rabbis and shuls in town that he’s quietly helped out. He’s a very generous man.”
Levine is married to Susan Levine, who recently retired as executive director of Hospice of the Valley. The couple lives in Paradise Valley and together they have six children and 14 grandchildren.
What: Gala honoring Bill Levine with entertainment by actor Jason Alexander and Urban Electra, and a live auction
Who: Valley of the Sun JCC
When: 6:30 p.m. cocktails, 7:30 p.m. dinner and entertainment, Saturday, Nov. 19
Where: Arizona Biltmore, 2400 E. Missouri Ave., Phoenix
Tickets: $500, $250 under age 40
Register by Nov. 4: 480-481-7033 or vosjcc.org/LevineEvening