Veterans: The engineer and the gentleman

Barbara and Richard Levine; From New Jersey to Har Halutz, 1985.

March 19, 2010 17:09
Barbara and Richard Levine with son Ariel.

barbara richard levine 311. (photo credit: Courtesy)

She’s an engineer for the Tel Aviv Metropolitan Mass Transit System who worked her way through grad school as a plumber. He’s a technical writer and folk music aficionado. Two of a handful of English-speakers in their little northern town, they both work hours away in Tel Aviv.

When Barbara and Richard Levine describe themselves as “outside the box,” they’re not kidding.

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Barbara Majer grew up in a Long Island town described by her husband as “no Jews or dogs allowed.”

“I was born to a non-Jewish family, who I later discovered – through my genealogical research – to be Jewish,” said Barbara. “At 13, I got to a point where it was like I was wearing shoes that didn’t fit.”

For a project on comparative religion for a church confirmation class, Barbara visited a synagogue – and kept going back. Following two conversions – one in 1973 and another 10 years later – she uncovered her family’s Polish-Jewish roots and her cousin, mystery author Rochelle Majer Krich.

Richard was born in New Haven, Connecticut, to a family whose surname in Belarus had been Sharapsky. In 2004, he discovered that a coworker originally from Belarus was his probable cousin. Both men believe they are related to Natan Sharansky, who resembles them both and whose surname is spelled identically to Sharapsky in the Cyrillic alphabet.


Both born in 1949, Barbara and Richard met in Philadelphia when she was studying electronics engineering at the University of Pennsylvania and he was working as a cost accountant. Barbara broke a couple of fingers playing field hockey, so Richard typed her master’s thesis.

“Barbara chose to live a Jewish life while at university,” Richard explained. “But neither of us had a particularly large base of Jewish knowledge. That was one of the first things we connected on.”

Their second date was Friday night services at Har Sinai Temple in Trenton, where Barbara – the first woman to receive a plumber’s license in the New Jersey capital – had done repairs while working her way through school. They were wed there about a year later, after Barbara’s Reform conversion.

In March 1983, the couple adopted newborn Ariel. Barbara joined their child in an Orthodox conversion, “to make sure there would be no questions in the future.” Eschewing “labels,” however, the family gravitated to a havura – an alternative, egalitarian worship group.

Meanwhile, Barbara became the first woman engineer at Amtrak, the American national railway. During her nearly 10 years there, she took on responsibility for the engineering, operation and maintenance of the vast electrification system powering trains on the Northeast corridor.

“I was on the path to become chief engineer and we were succeeding economically,” she said. “But by the time Ariel came along, we were growing more dissatisfied with American Jewish life.”


Arriving in Israel as tourists for their fifth wedding anniversary, the Levines unexpectedly felt at home the moment they touched the tarmac. Richard still gets choked up recalling how everyone on their tour bus sang “Jerusalem of Gold” as they ascended the hills of the capital.

During their stay, they read about the Three Mile Island nuclear disaster back in Pennsylvania and wondered if they would have a home to return to. They witnessed the signing of the peace accords with Egypt from the balcony of the Jerusalem Hilton (now the Crowne Plaza), where they also watched as Israel took the prize for “Hallelujah” in the Eurovision song contest.

“There we were, jumping up and down on a couch chanting ‘We’re No. 1!’ right near Zubin Mehta,” Richard recalled.

These events touched the Levines deeply. “Before we went back, I asked Barbara what she thought about living in Israel. She said, ‘No way.’ She really meant that she wanted to, but there was something in the way. We didn’t realize at the time, but the ‘something in the way’ was that Ariel hadn’t come along yet. The major piece of the puzzle hadn’t fallen into place.”

In late 1984, they started filling out paperwork at the aliya office in Philadelphia and then joined a garin – an aliya “seed group” – forming in Philadelphia. In the summer of 1985, a dozen of its families set out for Har Halutz, a new Galilee settlement intended as a Reform, pluralistic community. Starting out at an absorption center in nearby Karmiel, they lived in caravans for seven years while their homes were being built.

The Levines engaged an “organic” architect who used the principles of master architect Frank Lloyd Wright to design a small house that blended into the surrounding woods.


“Our absorption had its ups and downs, but for the children of the ’60s that we were, it was just fine,” said Richard. “We weren’t intimidated at all by fighting with the Jewish Agency to get things done.”

Thanks to a neighbor in the absorption center, Barbara got a job as a technical writer in Haifa. After eight months, she started her own consulting company, TechWrite Ltd. Richard worked for several years as an accountant at a kibbutz factory, and then joined his wife’s firm.

In May 1997, Barbara was recruited by Amtrak to help implement its high-speed Acela express route. She moved into a friend’s basement in Philadelphia and saw Richard and Ariel only occasionally for the seven years that Ariel was in high school and the army. Richard did the graphics and database work for the project, in Israel.

Then, a friend in Har Halutz wrote to Barbara about a job opening in Tel Aviv for a railroad engineer. Finally, in 2004, she got her first job here in her field, and within a year was managing the systems engineering group. Today, her group is working with the state to implement the largest infrastructure project in the country’s history: a Tel Aviv subway system.

Despite her executive position, Barbara is not fluent in Hebrew. “I have the same 50 words of Hebrew as I did 25 years ago,” she said. “I don’t let it stop me.”

Richard takes the train from Acre each morning with his wife to his job at Check Point Software Technologies, three blocks from Barbara’s office.


One of a few “graduates” of the original garin still living in Har Halutz – which now has about 90 families – the Levines treasure their rural home but spend much of their time in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

Barbara is an avid amateur archeologist and stamp collector. Richard is a huge fan of folk music, frequently attending local folk clubs and the Jacob’s Ladder music festival with Barbara. “I’ve even gotten on stage a couple of times,” he said.

Ariel served as an emissary in several North American cities and now is studying molecular biochemistry at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa. He is a wine expert/consultant and a former medic in an elite air force unit.


When the North was bombarded first with Scud missiles and later with Katyushas, Barbara said, “I saw a country that normally is so fragmented come together as one. Even when our politicians got in their cars and deserted our communities, the people took care of each other. That doesn’t happen anywhere else.”

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