Matt Levinson gets the question all the time: “Did you always want to work in your family’s funeral home business?”
The fifth generation of his family to work at Sol Levinson & Bros., he says it wasn’t initially a slam-dunk. “I worked here in the summers during high school and college, and I liked working with my family and keeping the tradition going,” says Levinson, now a 35-year-old father of two. “But I wasn’t sure yet. It’s not for everyone.”
What sealed the deal was going to dinner in Pikesville one evening with his father, Ira, and watching as restaurant patrons repeatedly came up and thanked them for the funeral home’s professionalism and compassion when their loved ones passed away. For some, it’d been several years.
“That really hit home,” says Levinson, now vice president of the funeral home. “Most businesses don’t get that. It’s very rewarding. That’s why we’re a business but we try not to run this like a business.”
Throughout this coming year, Levinson’s will celebrate its 125th anniversary by launching a volunteer initiative and participating in special community projects. Dedicated to the memory of Burton H. Levinson, a member of the third generation of the business’s ownership who died in 2015, the volunteer initiative will have the Levinson’s team working at and facilitating social action activities throughout the community, in partnership with Jewish Volunteer Connection and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore.
In addition, the four Levinson family members who work in the business and their staff of more than 50 will be present at several major Jewish festivals and gatherings in the Baltimore metropolitan and Howard County areas during the next year.
“Our staff is very important to us,” says Matt Levinson. “We couldn’t do what we do without them. We have the best, and we do a lot of things together outside of the office. We’re all like family.”
While other mortuary businesses have been relegated to the dustbin of local Jewish history, Levinson’s has not only survived but thrived. In an era when many family businesses have fallen by the wayside — and many Jewish funeral homes nationally have been taken over by corporations — Levinson’s has bucked the trends and remained under family ownership. It is arguably the only venue in Baltimore utilized by Jews of all perspectives and backgrounds, overseeing approximately 950 funerals annually ranging from the ultra-Orthodox to the unaffiliated.
“What we do here is very important,” says Ira Levinson, president of the business. “When you come to work every day and it’s meaningful work, it’s much easier to get the next generation involved. One generation teaches the next generation, and we talk a lot about doing the right thing and treating people the way you’d want to be treated.”
Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, Beth Tfiloh Congregation’s longtime spiritual leader, is one of myriad Jewish communal leaders who have nothing but praise for Levinson’s and its commitment to quality and community.
“Every major Jewish community has a funeral home, but only Baltimore has Levinson’s funeral home and there’s a world of difference,” Rabbi Wohlberg says. “Most every other funeral home is run by an impersonal corporation that frequently has several funerals going on at the same time and is simply a business. Levinson’s is different because it’s family-owned and because they themselves are part of the community.
“They treat everyone in a very unique sort of way,” he says. “They know many of the families they are dealing with. That makes the connection more meaningful at a very difficult time. All of the people working there, family and employees as well, do everything with respect and dignity.”
Steve Venick, president of Pikesville’s Fram Monument Co. and the Jewish Cemetery Association of Greater Baltimore, agrees.
“I’ve worked with them for over 17 years. Anytime we call on them, they’re eager to help,” Venick says. “I’ve never heard anyone ever say anything negative about them. They simply know what they’re doing and always give back to the community. We’re fortunate to have them, and I fully expect them to be around for another 125 years.”
‘More Than a Funeral Home’
Like most things associated with Charm City Jewry, it all began in East Baltimore.
In 1892, a Russian emigrant named Max Levinson founded the first funeral home to specifically serve Baltimore’s Jewish community, on High Street. That establishment was destroyed in the Great Baltimore Fire of 1904, but it reopened on East Baltimore Street and was eventually named Sol Levinson & Bros.
“[Max] wanted the oldest son to have the name and it stuck,” says Stanley Levinson, chairman of the board, who at 87 is the last remaining member of the third generation of family ownership.
Over the years, Levinson’s followed the Jewish community’s northwestern migratory patterns, moving to larger facilities on North Avenue, lower Reisterstown Road and — in 1996 — its current location at 8900 Reisterstown Road.
“Each one of our moves was beneficial. We became closer to the families, to where the majority of the community lived,” says Stanley Levinson. “When I started working here [in 1948], you couldn’t dream all this would happen. A lot of businesses open, but then a lot close.”
The current site features a main chapel with a Jerusalem stone wall that can seat 400 to 500 people; a side chapel that seats 150; a parlor that can accommodate as many as 40 mourners for intimate private services; a bereavement library that provides resources for aftercare and grief support; and a separate building for kohanim, members of the priestly caste, who are forbidden to enter funeral homes but can watch services via televised hookups. (Funerals at Levinson’s are webcasted and can be streamed live, and the company has a daily email and a website, sollevinson.com.)
Levinson’s also has an arrangement center office in Columbia to serve the funereal needs of Jews in Howard County.
In addition, Levinson’s coordinates out-of-town burials and funeral arrangements, as far away as Israel; and oversees the Baltimore area chevra kadisha, the holy burial society that performs the rites and rituals of Kavot HaMet, respect for the dignity of the dead. Also, Levinson’s is involved in and serves as a conduit for burials, shivas, unveilings and other mourning needs, as well as quietly takes care of funeral arrangements for individuals with modest or little financial means.
It also should be noted that Levinson’s, in conjunction with Jewish Community Services, offers a number of bereavement and memorial lecture series and programs. The funeral home also has a free pre-planning guide to help families with funeral and memorialization arrangements ahead of time.
“This is more than a funeral home,” says Matt Levinson. “We want to help people learn and educate them about Jewish customs and the funeral industry. We take our business very seriously. And if we can make the process a little easier, we’ve done our job.”
Ira Levinson attributes the company’s success to his family’s longtime commitment to Baltimore Jewry.
“We live here. It’s our name,” he says. “We’re not from out of town. People trust us, and that’s a big deal. And even though our reputation is good, we always try to do better. We know what we do makes a difference in people’s lives. When there’s a loss, that’s a big deal. It changes your life. So we need to be there, to take care of everybody.
“I learned from my father that there’s only one way to do something — the right way. That’s the Levinson credo.”
Stanley Levinson agrees. “We give a service we feel is second to none, and we get letters from people complimenting us,” he says. “When you call us, you always get a live person, not an answering service, regardless of whether you’re calling at 3 in the afternoon or 3 in the morning.”
The Levinsons say the funeral industry can be an emotionally draining, 24/7 business. “We meet people at their most difficult time, but we have to be there for them,” says Matt Levinson. “You always need to be professional. We lean on each other and have a team approach, and that really helps.”
His father says, “It’s like working at a hospital. We’re never closed, whether it snows or rains, holidays or weekends. If someone dies in the middle of the night, we have to be there.”
Stanley Levinson takes a philosophical approach to the business. “When you’re living around death like this, you never really get used to it. But this is the road everyone has to take, sooner or later,” he says. “We’re here to handle the families’ wishes.”
A Sixth Generation?
Ellensue Levinson-Jeffers has worked in the family business for 36 years and says she still loves being a funeral home director. She considers herself a pioneer in a field that once had few females.
“There’s something about how the community feels about us that is so humbling,” she says. “I really feel it’s more like a service than a business, and I feel like I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing. I have a passion for helping people at a difficult time.”
Over the years, she says, Levinson’s has changed by increasingly utilizing technology and encouraging more family participation at services and burials. The trend today is more personalized, longer services, occasionally with musical accompaniment.
“We’ve changed because the community and world have changed, but what hasn’t changed is the service we provide. It has to be the best of the best,” she says. “What we do can be stressful because sometimes things have to be done in less than 24 hours. But we make sure all of the guidelines are met and everyone is respected.”
That level of respect extends to family dynamics within the ownership, says Stanley Levinson. “Whatever comes up, we talk and work it out,” he says. “Everyone has differences, but we always know how to solve our differences. We get along, and we’re lucky in that way.”
When asked how Max Levinson might feel knowing that the business he founded 125 years ago was still around and flourishing, Ira Levinson simply grins. “I think he would be very, very proud and amazed,” he says.
Meanwhile, Matt Levinson admits he would be thrilled if his children, Zachary, 3, and Jillian, 18 months old, someday became members of the sixth generation to work in the family business.
“No pressure,” he says, “but if it’s a good fit, that would be great.”
Above: Ellensue Levinson-Jeffers, Matt Levinson, Ira Levinson and Stanley Levinson (left to right) are the principal family owners and operators of Sol Levinson & Bros. funeral home in Pikesville. (Photo courtesy of Sol Levinson & Bros.)
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