Gerry Levy – a Eulogy

November 23, 2012 by Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence
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Gerry Levy was a highly respected and committed member of the Sydney Jewish community who passed away this week. Rabbi Jeremy Lawrence has produced his eulogy…

Gerry Levy

This Shabbat in shul we shall read Parshat Vayetzei. It is the Parsha where Jacob, a refugee in the wilderness dreams of a ladder climbing to heaven; where God promises him protection, stability and family. Jacob does not crave material things. All he desires is that, “God will be with me, will guide me on this way that I am going; will give me bread to eat and clothes to wear…” Jacob becomes a patriarch; a man of means; a man of integrity; a broker of peace; a respected leader of his people… However more important to him than any possessions or glory is the love of a wife and the delight of his family. And such is the man whose life we celebrate this morning.
When in the 1994 Queen’s Birthday Honours Gerry Levy received his AM for service to the Jewish Community, he said to the Governor Sir Peter Sinclair that he never thought that a reffo boy could attain such distinction. He had come a long way from Magdeburg.
Gerry was born on 23 May 1924. His parents were Ernst and Marianne. Ernst was a grain merchant, a seller of continental foods, coffee and sausages. His mother helped out. Young Gerhardt was an only child.
Apparently he was also quite a naughty child with a zest for life who enjoyed pinching the name badges off cars.
He told of his first encounter with Hitler’s Brownshirts, when he was with his dad in Leipzig in 1936.
He recalled going with his aunt Ella to afternoon tea and being told that the Juden were unerwunscht. Ella, who was a formidable, if tiny woman, insisted that “We will leave but we will eat our ice cream first!” Graham describes Ella as “fearless, a communist, half the size of Rabbi Rogut, and Dad loved her!”
Gerry’s schooling ended on Kristallnacht itself. He was a fifteen year old who cycled through Magdeburg warning people of the danger of arrest. Ernst’s service record in the First World War quite possibly contributed to him escaping being sent off to a concentration camp. Through family of Marianne who were already here, they were able to get visas to Australia, arriving in Sydney in March 1939.
Anxious not to be a burden on his parents, Gerry had himself fostered out to a poultry farm in Castle Hill; and he worked on the farm and then as a welder until he was able to enlist in a Reffo battalion stationed in remote NSW. His last year of service after the war was spent guarding Italian POWs.
Much of the large, extended family was lost. Their memories, as well as his own, form part of Gerry’s testimony to the Steven Spielberg survivor archive. He was also interviewed and played host to Thomas Keneally when he was writing Schindler’s List. Distant family went to England and Israel. Gerry maintained contact and was thrilled that many came over for a reunion at his grandson, Ben’s Bar Mitzvah last year.

Kristallnacht in particular, had touched Gerry as personal and a humiliation. He felt privileged to have escaped the worst horrors and felt an abiding commitment to the new community, where he belonged.
After the war he started out as a clothes cutter and designer of women’s dresses.
It was while Gerry was still in the army that he first met Erna Mendels. He was visiting her brother, Alan, who was in the service with him. As Erna describes their encounter, “I came home from school and he saw this fat, pimply girl in school uniform – he turned away and carried on his conversation.” A couple of years later, Gerry would be President of B’nai B’rith young men; Erna was president of B’nai B’rith young women. Both young leaders, with a common interest in B’nai B’rith and the Zionist Youth League; they dated, attended concerts and were married in The Great Synagogue in 1948.
Robyn says that “dad rescued mum who was going to go to Israel.” While Gerry had grown up in a relatively secular environment, Erna had grown up in a kosher home and her family were close to the Porushs. As a price for staying in Sydney, Erna insisted that they maintain a kosher kitchen. It was important to her that interstate kids and visitors could always be put up and be billeted at their place. She didn’t like to say to Jewish children her age that they couldn’t stay over or eat. And Michael remembers that they still have friends today through the interstate guests who stayed over. At one convention an invitee confessed to Gerry, “I’m very embarrassed to tell you… but I’m kosher.” To which he responded, “I’m very embarrassed to tell you…. But so are we!”
With the assistance of his uncle and aunt, whose business had succeeded, Gerry, a keen and competent handyman, was able to set up his own shop in Pagewood in 1958 which he ran through till retirement in 1986.
Gerry participated actively at every level of community. He was involved in the local Chamber of Commerce as well as B’nai B’rith, the Board of Deputies, Jewish Welfare and Jewish Care, the Ethnic Affairs Commission, the ECAJ and the CCJ, the UIA, Tranby and the Jewish Museum.
Erna admired his commitment. “His greatest quality was that he was self-made. He had no degree, but had his heart in the right place. He always knew how to delegate and didn’t look over people’s shoulders.” She adds, “My contention was it was all very well for people to say ‘wasn’t he wonderful’, but if your children are in the poo who is going to pull them out?” As Robyn, Michael and Graham grew up, Erna provided the stable domestic environment.
Together, they did anything and everything. They enjoyed travel; with distant family there were always people and places to visit. They played golf. They enjoyed classical music and were subscribers to the Sydney Symphony for 64 years. They went camping. They had American army hammocks so if they could find three trees they were set up for the night. On those occasions Robyn chose to stay with her grandmother!
“He gave us every opportunity,” says Robyn. “He taught us important values; family, community, work and education. These, not the material things, were important. With mum they never complained about their lot in life. We never had the sense that they looked at others and wondered why they didn’t have this or that. Dad taught us happiness and contentment with life. He didn’tdwell on the sadness of the past and what was lost. He was always respectful of leaders of the community and caring for their families when they passed on. He looked after the weaker members of the community and modelled neighbour support.”
Gerry was the guardian of his cousin Alfred who needed specialised care. He attended to him diligently at the Monte in Hunter’s Hill.
“He wasn’t demanding with high expectations as a parent,” adds Robyn, “though he could be quite impatient and he was quite emotional.” “He doted on you!” Says Gabby.
“He was proud of our achievements,” says Michael. “He set an example. You did good deeds. It was the right thing to do. It wasn’t charity. There was always room for another seat at our table. I saw the community man and I saw the businessman. I learnt from him a love of education, community, work ethic, honesty and family.”
Gerry was always very interested in politics and current affairs. He could always hold a conversation; matter of fact, not pretentious. “He wasn’t driven,” says Robyn. Though Graham remembers a complete stranger who was not Jewish, who asked him if he was the son of the Gerry Levy who had been involved in ethnic affairs at the time of the Pauline Hanson affair. That was one sensitivity that clearly, really had raised his hackles.
Graham jests, “I copped a good deal of beltings as a kid. I think he looked in the mirror and saw himself!” Robyn notes that he was erratic as a disciplinarian. “He liked it that I was handy and could do stuff on the car,” says Graham. “He had had a gun to shoot rabbits and was happy to get me an air rifle. I had a workshop in the garage and whatever tools I wanted.” By contrast, Robyn would cry at dirt and Michael had two left hands.
“He was honest and direct”, says Graham. “He called a spade, a spade.” He never differentiated between his children and his children in the law. And later his grandchildren’s partners and his grandchildren. He loved them all and was proud of everyone’s achievements. He drew them close.
As a leader, he was naturally a conciliator and mediator. People’s trust in him was implicit. Erna says that when someone in B’nai B’rith needed financial support, he raised it from members who trusted him and would loan the money on the basis that it would eventually be repaid without interest. Gerry arranged it so that the people who lent the money never knew who was going to and the recipient didn’t know where it had come from. But it would be brokered and repaid. Gerry had that kind of trust. He was never too proud to ask people for help when it was not for himself.
Joachim Schneeweiss says that “Gerry Levy straddled a series of leadership roles in the city. He was always a force for moderation and accommodation. His influence was inspired by fundamental principles of integrity with a deep Jewish base. He provided a guide for others to follow.”
Graham de Vaal Davis calls him, “a gentleman and a gentle man. His approach to the presidency was to maintain close contact with all the different boards and constituent bodies, attending their meetings and their services.” Gerry was close, personal and caring.

Gerry was a doting grandparent and great grandparent. Joshua has the fondest memories of Friday nights with Opi and time spent in the school holidays. They would go B’nai B’rith or to his office before going to lunch. They went on adventures, many of which involved blueberry and fruit picking. For a long time the fruit picking expeditions were restricted to the three boys, Josh, Ilan and Yoni but eventually Adina was able to join the male trio.
On Friday nights there was no set seating but Opi always sat at the head of the table with the grandchildren closest to him… His henchmen. They’d play games together. We’d be involved with him. He always wanted to know what we were up to.
Ilan shares the same memories. Also a garage with all the tools; and receiving a lot of tools when Gerry closed the shop. Ilan would help him in the garden and together they would fix all the stuff at home that Ilan’s parents didn’t want to fix.
Ilan notes how even on Gerry’s worst days at the Monte, he would perk up when he saw the kids.
Yoni remarks that “Opi was a fantastic grandfather, spending a great deal of time with us as we grew up. I have particularly fond memories of a trip to the Blue Mountains with Omi and my cousin Ilan, and of our annual blueberry-picking trips, the products of which would find their way into Omi’s baked goods for months afterwards.
“Opi was immensely proud of the home that he and his family had made in Australia. It was his stories of growing up in early Nazi-era Germany that struck home for me above all other stories of the era. A particularly confronting recollection of his was of him and his parents being farewelled by relatives as they departed Germany for Australia. Of the 30+ members of the family who saw them off, only a single one would survive to the end of the war.”
Gerry was particularly proud of Yoni’s military service and the commendations he received. Gerry had worn Australian army uniform. His father had worn German uniform in the First World War and four generations earlier an ancestor had worn a Prussian uniform in the battle of Waterloo against Napoleon.
“Above all this,” continues Yoni, “I remember him as a man with a devilish, cheeky sense of humour. Always ready with a witty jibe, racy pun or anecdote. When I joined the Army, he told me with pride of the mischief that he got up to while serving during WWII. He was particularly fond of recounting how – while a parade was going on, he snuck into the office with the recorded marching music was being played from. Trouble-maker that he was; he changed the record part-way through the parade, to some far more up-beat, contemporary music, leading to mayhem on the parade ground.”
Adina says he told so many stories. I never knew which were true, but it didn’t matter! “I was the little one, the girl, the exception. I remember begging Opi to let me caddy for him. He paid the boys two dollars a time! He always had something cheeky to say. He was not backwards in coming forwards. Last night I even had a shot of whiskey for Opi… But hated it!”
Ben remembers the Friday nights, the tools and construction. “He always found the time to explain the different tools to me and what they did.” Renée recalls how proud Ben was to be appointed as

Gerry’s chief assistant at fixing cupboards and being trusted with tricky tools. He was a keen supporter of grandparents’ days and open days.
Emily recalls the holidays with Omi and Opi in January; Gerry melting down knitting needles so that they were small enough for her to use so that she could knit with Omi when they used to spend Mondays at their house. Opi always knew what to do. He used to give me some of the money he won from cards when he was playing with his friends in front of the TV. He was always very kind towards others.
Gabrielle remembers him coming to school musicals. “Also the occasion when we wanted to play putt-putt golf and it was raining… So we played in the rain!”
Gerry’s communal CV encompasses a phenomenal range of boards and organisations. Apparently the only one he didn’t particularly enjoy was a spell on the board of The Great Synagogue! As district 21 President of B’nai B’rith he met Menachem Begin, Yitzchak Rabin and Henry Kissinger, but it wasn’t the glory of leadership which motivated him. When he became President of the Board of Deputies in 1989 he said, “I regard as my top priority the projection of the work of the board to our constituent organisations and to ensure that we are there to work with them and to make our resources available.” He devoted himself to outreach.
In this vein, one of his most constant thrills was a volunteer guide at the Jewish Museum and pointing out the Shabbat table to schoolchildren from the non-Jewish schools. They would be amazed that Gerry sat at a family table like that every single week, beautifully decked and festive, surrounded by as many children and grandchildren as were available.
Renée says he cherished the letters from those year 11 kids who thanked him for his tours. He loved to connect with people. And as she shows a photograph of Gerry kissing Erna at Ben’s recent Bar Mitzvah she says, “with all the teasing, you can see how much love there was there!”
Another significant and memorable moment for Gerry was when he was chairing a committee on domestic violence. At the beginning of the session he had the leaders of the orthodox synagogues on one side and the progressive community on the other. He forced them to sit together and they found that they could. This week as we head into the White Ribbon campaign and as our communities stand together against spousal abuse and domestic violence; may we all be inspired by Gerry’s example of communication, collaboration and conciliation as opposed to confrontation.
Our Parsha this week is one of transition. Jacob the refugee becomes Jacob the patriarch and leader. Jacob, the fugitive from conflict becomes a negotiator and a dealer. At the beginning of the Parsha, when Jacob has a dream he remarks astonished that this is the house of God and I didn’t know it! However the end of the Parsha, back in the wilderness, he asserts with confidence that his is a godly camp. What distinguishes the place where God was not readily discerned from the place where He was manifest? The answer is that at the beginning of the Parsha Jacob was alone and at the end he had the companionship of family; the certain future of the children of Israel.
Gerry rejoiced in his family, his godly camp, the love of life, the love of his wife, his children, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren. And they, and our community, all delighted in him. We shall carry the memories of his warmth, the twinkle in his eye, his cheeky smile, his teasing and provocative comments, his engaging radiance and his banter. These delightfully human traits, together with his integrity, his honesty, his energy for community and his pursuit of harmony and the dignity of humanity combine to make ours a godly camp.
Oh Lord, we commend to you this morning Gerry Levy, Meir Ben Eliezer. Welcome him into the paradise of Your eternal protection and grant him the reward of the righteous; the pillars of Israel.
Grant comfort and blessing to Erna his loving wife and devoted soulmate for 64 years. May Robyn and Gabby, Michael and Renée, Graham and Julie be blessed and comforted in his memory together with Gerry’s grandchildren Ilan and Dalia, Joshua and Naomi, Yoni, Adina, Ben; Emily, Gabrielle and Patrick. May they, together with Gerry’s great-grandchildren, Oliver and Koby, Ariel and Jonah continue to be inspired by the magic of Gerry’s stories and the decency of Gerry’s example.
May Gerry rest in peace, and let us say, amen.


One Response to “Gerry Levy – a Eulogy”
  1. Otto Waldmann says:

    Indeed , a mentch of delicate and ellegant wit and wisdom, a most pleasant presence.
    Wishing his family long life.


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