Shelly Levine enters the Zoom waiting room three minutes before our scheduled 8 a.m. online interview. Holding a cup of coffee in one hand, she says brightly in a brassy Bronx accent, “Here I am!” and we are off.
I spend the better part of the next hour listening to her rollicking life story, seasoned with her laughter and cackles as she recounts some of the more humorous moments, interspersed with recollections of more difficult times. The founder and owner of Tivuch Shelly, one of Israel’s leading real estate agencies, Levine’s successes have paralleled the growth of Israel over the past 40 years.
Beginnings in New York
Shelly Levine was born in the Bronx. Her mother died when she was nine, and after her father remarried, she moved to Forest Hills, Queens, with her father and stepmother at age 14. One of her earliest childhood memories is of going to New York’s Idlewild Airport (later renamed John F. Kennedy Airport) in the late 1950s when her grandfather traveled to Israel, and seeing an El Al plane with a prominent Jewish star emblazoned on the fuselage.
As a college student, Shelly was an active and engaged member of the Jewish community – “I was president of the New York Union of Jewish Students,” she says – and it was her participation in a demonstration in front of the Soviet Embassy in Washington on behalf of Soviet Jewry in 1971 that changed her life. She was one of the first people arrested for disorderly conduct, and Charlie Levine, a graduate student from Texas, saw her picture in the newspaper account.
“He said, ‘Why don’t I meet pretty Zionist girls like that?’” recalls Shelly. “I had long blond hair, and I looked cute in those days,” she says, smiling.
Charlie pursued Shelly, and they married in 1974. Charlie, who planned to create a public relations firm in Jerusalem, began working for the United Jewish Appeal (UJA) in New York. Then, after two years in Cleveland, Charlie and Shelly moved back to New York, where he served as director of public relations for the Hadassah Women’s organization.
“He had a strategy to meet every Jewish organization before he opened his company in Jerusalem,” Shelly says.
“You don’t know what this country was like in 1978. There was no technology. There were two flavors of jelly in the supermarket, and there was no tuna fish. You had to be a real Zionist to live here. There were no American salaries, and the bureaucracy was crazy. But I really wanted to be here, and my husband wanted to be here.”Shelly Levine
Moving to Israel
In December 1978, Charlie and Shelly moved to Israel with their 16-month-old child. “You don’t know what this country was like in 1978,” Levine says. “There was no technology. There were two flavors of jelly in the supermarket, and there was no tuna fish. You had to be a real Zionist to live here. There were no American salaries, and the bureaucracy was crazy. But I really wanted to be here, and my husband wanted to be here.”
Levine’s parents were not thrilled that Shelly and Charlie were making aliyah, but they gave her $300 to buy Pampers diapers for the baby. “I walked into the biggest pharmacy in Jerusalem, and I said, ‘Can I please have a box of Pampers? The man handed me one diaper, and I said, ‘I don’t understand.’ He replied, ‘People buy Pampers for a tiyul. There’s not a box of Pampers in all of Jerusalem.’ I ended up getting a diaper pail and a service like every other Israeli.”
Charlie worked for the Israeli government and the Jewish Agency for two years, promoting Israel in the US, before forming his own agency, Charles Levine Communications. Shelly assisted him for several years, but in 1986, she decided that she had to strike out on her own.
“I said, ‘Listen, Charlie. I have always been my own woman, and I am not going to be your tail for the rest of my life,’” she recalls. During a visit to the US, while sitting on a plane that was circling over LaGuardia Airport in a holding pattern, the couple made a list of job possibilities for Shelly, until they hit on real estate. Tivuch Shelly was born.
The birth of a real estate career
AFTER RETURNING to Israel, the neophyte real estate agent began her career, first selling a few houses for individual clients and then selling 11 apartments in a new project. In the late 1980s, while attending a funeral in Beit Shemesh with her husband, Shelly had an idea. “I was in the cemetery, with all of these dead people. I said to my husband, “Why don’t we make suburbia here? Let’s bring live Americans.”
Beit Shemesh became Shelly’s first big success, and she ended up selling 900 units in the Sheinfeld project. Tivuch Shelly has been selling projects in the Beit Shemesh area since 1986 and continues to market in Ramat Beit Shemesh. Shelly then continued her successes in Mitzpe Nevo, Har Homa and other areas, and has sold many thousands of apartments and cottages throughout Israel.
Shelly works hard – “I’m busier now than I was in my 30s,” she says – but she sets aside time for herself. “The business doesn’t run me. I run it,” she says firmly. She has traveled to more than 70 countries and is an avid reader of geopolitical spy books, the likes of Brad Thor and Vince Flynn.
She is pleased that she moved to Israel more than 40 years ago and chose real estate as a career while circling over LaGuardia Airport. “I believe that what I do is an incredible privilege that God inspired. What better privilege could a person have than to help build the Land of Israel after 2,000 years? Very few people could say at my age, that they did what they wanted with their lives. I have done what I wanted with my life, and I have lived a charmed life.”
“I believe that what I do is an incredible privilege that God inspired. What better privilege could a person have than to help build the Land of Israel after 2,000 years? Very few people could say at my age, that they did what they wanted with their lives. I have done what I wanted with my life, and I have lived a charmed life.”Shelly Levine
Though her career has flourished, Shelly expresses regret regarding the sudden passing of her husband, one of Israel’s top public relations professionals, from an aneurysm in 2014. “I was extremely close to him, and we had an extremely happy marriage. That is my big regret in life,” she says quietly. Shelly and Charlie lived in Ma’aleh Adumim for many years; after his death, she moved to Jerusalem’s Arnona neighborhood.
Levine says she values the friendship and camaraderie she has experienced with the friends she made since she first made aliyah. She truly believes that her career in real estate is a calling. “We are in the business of nurturing aliyah communities. What could be better?”
“No Israeli citizen can be left behind. We must provide reasonable housing for Israelis and people who come to Israel who aren’t fabulously rich.”Shelly Levine
Israel's problems: Politics, lack of rabbinic leadership, rising real estate prices
While she says it is hard for her to find things about Israel that she doesn’t like, she finds three ready targets of her ire – Israel’s political system, the lack of rabbinic leadership in the country, and the rising prices of real estate.
Regarding politics, she says, “I hate having elections every couple of years. We have to do something about the political situation. We look like a joke, and everyone is sick of it. Left, right – I don’t care – there are great people in every camp who want the best for this country. It’s not a political thing for me – it’s the system.”
Regarding rabbinic leadership, Levine avers, “The reason Judaism has survived is because Judaism changed with the times. We are now stagnant. There are some good rabbis, but we need good rabbis who are not afraid to take a stand on modern issues.”
Finally, regarding the dearth of affordable housing, Levine adds emphatically, “No Israeli citizen can be left behind. We must provide reasonable housing for Israelis and people who come to Israel who aren’t fabulously rich.”
Our hour is almost up, and Shelly Levine needs to get on with her day. “Two kids came to Israel,” she says, referring to her and her late husband, “and both had a tremendous impact on the country. What better thing in life than to meet your dreams? How many people do what they started out to do?” ■
SHELLY LEVINE FROM FOREST HILLS, NEW YORK TO JERUSALEM, 1978