This is Marvin Bonowitz. I’m speaking with Cathy Levine today at her home, 908 Grandon Avenue in Bexley and this is January 17, 2006. Cathy is a member of the Jewish Historical Society and has an idea of what we’ll be talking about. First Cathy, I’d like to ask you, where did you grow up?
Levine: I grew up in Great Neck, New York, on Long Island.
Interviewer: What kind of city is that?
Levine: Great Neck is a bedroom suburb of Manhattan, predominantly Jewish,
predominantly middle and upper class to wealthy.
Interviewer: Uh huh. What was your family like?
Levine: My father was an attorney in private, solo practice. My mother had a
variety of careers. My older sister, who is my half-sister, got married when I
was 10 and so I grew up after that as an only child.
Interviewer: Uh huh. Then you went to Hebrew School or…
Levine: Oh no. Actually one year when I was in fifth grade, my parents joined
a new Reconstructionist congregation and I went for one year to a Hebrew School
where I learned the alphabet and the Shema and how to ask for another
cookie in Hebrew. But that was my only Hebrew education when I was growing up
and we were unaffiliated with any synagogue.
Interviewer: Well you have two sons, Max and Jesse, and your husband is Dr.
Jonathan Groner who, the last I knew, was Head of Emergency Services at Children’s
Levine: No, he’s actually the Director of Trauma and he’s a general
pediatric surgeon there.
Interviewer: And I know that you or your whole family reads the Torah because
I’m…we’re members of the same Congregation Tifereth Israel and your family
is very active. Not only do you read the Torah, and I don’t know where you’ve,
you can tell us where you learned that, but also you’re very active in the
synagogue and you get us moving toward some of the things that need to be done
in the community. As a matter of fact, that’s one of the things I want to talk
about because you are also being nominated for a Jefferson Award which is given
each year by the Dispatch, Huntington Bank, Nationwide, and Channel 10,
for awarding people in the community who have made notable contributions to
the society we’re living in and meeting the needs of some of those things. So
we’ll maybe talk about BREAD a little bit and the Activities Committee of the
synagogue, Social Action Committee. But let’s go back to the rest of your
family because you’ve told us what Jonathan does. And how about Max and Jesse?
Levine: Max is 16. He’s a sophomore at Bexley High School. A great student.
He also tutors Bar and Bat Mitzvah students for Tifereth Israel.
And loves sports and loves watching sports. Jesse is 13. He recently celebrated
his Bar Mitzvah and he’s in the seventh grade at Bexley Middle School.
Interviewer: I attended that Bar Mitzvah Cathy and I know that he
asked, he made contributions to people that, to food, how would you describe
Levine: Oh well, a few years ago, Tifereth Israel started collecting food for
the Lutheran Food Pantry which was the closest food pantry we could find to
Tifereth Israel. It’s a couple of miles from the synagogue. And instead of
flowers on the Kiddush table, we bought baby food and created
centerpieces out of the baby food and we made a contribution in Jesse’s honor
to Mazon, the Jewish response to hunger.
Interviewer: You also, you had another project because I know during the
summer he had a project to put together pieces of computers that people would
donate that they were no longer using.
Levine: Right, right. Well, much to its credit, Tifereth Israel now asks Bar
and Bat Mitzvah students to do a social action project and we talked for
a long time with Jesse to figure out what he wanted to do, what would be a great
interest to him. And he came up with the idea of collecting computers and
refurbishing them to give to people who needed computers but couldn’t afford
them. And originally we were hoping to give them to Pilgrim Elementary School
but after we started the project, Pilgrim got a grant and was able to obtain
computers. So we were having a lot of trouble looking for a place to donate the
computers and then Hurricane Katrina struck and Ohio started setting up evacuees
in Columbus and so we gave several, Jesse refurbished computers and gave them to
families that Tifereth Israel set up.
Interviewer: Is he still doing that?
Levine: He plans to do it some more. We have had a problem finding, linking
up with donees, which is very frustrating because we know that there are many
people, particularly secondary school students in Columbus, who could benefit
from having computers and we have to find a way of getting them to the students.
Interviewer: Are you the Chairman of the Social Action Committee at the
Levine: No I’m not. Goldie Fisher is.
Interviewer: Have you been an officer or a leader?
Levine: No I was never. I’ve always been active in the leadership of the
Social Action Committee. My only official role was that for several years I
served as our representative to the Board of BREAD and then I turned that over
Interviewer: Is Pilgrim, tutoring at Pilgrim and other activities at that
school, is that a project of the synagogue’s Social Action Committee?
Levine: Yes it is.
Interviewer: You have a group of volunteers that go over there to help with
Levine: Yes. Five or more years ago, Larry Smith, got the idea of us adopting
a school and we adopted Pilgrim which is an elementary school just about around
the block from Tifereth, and we set up a highly-successful tutoring program at
Pilgrim where synagogue members went and tutored students there and it’s still
going on today. Although there have been so many changeovers in administration
at the school that they have chosen to reduce the size of the tutoring program.
Interviewer: Hmmm. What else are they involved with or what are some of your
Levine: My main activity with the Social Action Committee aside, you know we
talked about Lutheran Food Pantry, I was instrumental in setting up the box in
the synagogue to make it easy for people to incorporate feeding hungry people
into regular life at the synagogue and to make it easier for people to just do
that so now we have a box where people can bring food items and baby food and
other items. But my main activity has been with relation to BREAD because,
through the synagogue, the BREAD organization, instead of trying to get food to
people who are starving, is really trying to look at the root causes for why
there are people who have inadequate housing, education, jobs, food, health
care, and I’m most interested in addressing those root causes so that people
don’t need to rely on food pantries and free clinics for basics.
Interviewer: Let me just ask you where you went to college or what you did .
. . .
Levine: My first two years, I went to Case Western Reserve University and I
graduated from NYU in New York. And then I got, I tried to avoid graduate school
for several years and got a Master’s Degree in Feminist Studies while living
in Boston and then I went to law school at the New England School of Law in
Boston. Graduated in 1977 from law school, moved down to New Bedford, Massachu-
setts, where I practiced law and was the staff attorney for the Women’s Center
there. And then in ’81, moved to Philadelphia and got a job in private
practice in a law firm there and practiced law through most of the 80s until I
met my husband on a bicycle ride and one thing led to another and we ended up in
Columbus after living in Milwaukee and England.
Interviewer: Where did Jesse grow up?
Levine: Jesse…, well Max, the older, was born in Milwaukee.
Interviewer: Excuse me, I meant . . . .
Levine: Jon is from Highland Park, Illinois, northern suburb of Chicago, and
he went to high school in Highland Park and then went through a six-year program
at North- western where he did two years of undergraduate education followed by
four years of medical school. And then went to a surgical residency at the
Medical College of Wisconsin in Milwaukee and after his third year of surgery
residency, went to Philadelphia to do research at Children’s Hospital there in
order to prepare himself for applying for a pediatric surgery fellowship and he
and I met on a bicycle ride and the rest, as they say, is history. And so when
he finished doing his research at Children’s Hospital and went back to
Milwaukee to finish his surgery residency, I went with him and we, at the time
that we went back to Milwaukee, I was already married to him and seven months
pregnant and Max was born in Milwaukee. And then Jon finished his surgery
residency and obtained a pediatric surgery fel- lowship which is why we’re in
Columbus. We came here in ’91 thinking we were going to be living here for two
years while he did his fellowship in pediatric surgery and then we’d be
looking for another job. But in ’93, after looking for jobs around the
country, he accepted a position here. So in ’93 we realized we were really
living here and not just stopping by. So that brought us to Columbus.
Interviewer: Okay. What is your job title? Tell us a little about your work.
Levine: Well I am the Executive Director of the Universal Health Care Action
Network of Ohio, or UHCAN Ohio, a statewide organization that works for
affordable, acces- sible health care for all. I started with UHCAN Ohio’s
predecessor, which was a northeast Ohio organization in 1994, working very
part-time while spending time with my little children. I started by working on
state policy, following state policy developments and worked for many years on
state health care policy and local health systems improvement and then became
Executive Director several years ago. The organization has offices in Columbus
and Cleveland and we work on state policy and also working on efforts to improve
access to affordable care in local communities. So I’ve been very involved in
improving the health care system in Columbus.
Interviewer: What are some of the problems you’re running into?
Levine: Well when we opened our Columbus office in 1998, I had an organizer
go out to figure out what are the great unmet health needs that we might want to
address in Columbus. And as a result of her ongoing outreach, we discovered that
there were many immigrant communities in Columbus that were facing tremendous
barriers in access to health care, particularly access to interpreter services.
So we approached the hospitals in Columbus about improving access to language
services. And today, I’m proud to say that Columbus probably has the best
hospital-based interpreter services program in the State of Ohio. At first, we
had a very adversarial relationship with the hospitals. But they really saw the
need and then bit the bullet and invested the money in building their
interpreter services. At the same time we discovered that a lot of people had
unpaid hospital bills. And that was our introduction into the problem of medical
debt. We learned about other efforts around the country to address the medical
debt problem by working with hospitals on improving their financial assistance
And that’s become a major part of our work. We did a study of the
hospitals, the Columbus hospitals, we did phone monitoring to ask about whether
free care was available at the hospitals and we did site visits to see if they
had signage and written materials. And despite the fact that Ohio has a free
care law for people below poverty level we, the majority of times we were told,
“No, there’s no help available.” So we approached the Columbus
hospitals with a community group, you know, representing people who live and
work in under-served communities, and we worked with the hospitals so that the
hospitals improved their policies and also improved outreach to patients so that
when uninsured patients come to the hospital, they should be informed that
financial assistance is available, that they can apply for financial assistance,
either to have their debts written off or reduced. So, you know, we’ve been
working on that for several years and again, I think the Columbus hospitals are
doing better than the hospitals in most part of the state, because of our
advocacy efforts. And now when the community groups that I’m in touch with run
into problems with uninsured or under-insured patients paying hospital bills,
you know, we can usually work it out because we have relationships with the
And so, we’re now replicating that work in Cleveland and have been
working on it in Cleveland for several years and that work led us to do
trainings which we do around the state. At first we just did them in Columbus.
We provide full-day trainings on resources for uninsured people and immigrants.
I think the immigrant populations of Ohio were very invisible until the last
decade when, because of the growth of immigrant populations, the health care
system has suddenly taken notice and the general public is becoming more aware
of our growth in immigrant populations. But there’s a tremendous vacuum in
knowledge about available programs for immigrants. So we do training on
available programs for uninsured people and immigrants and I think it’s safe
to say that our trainings are unique. People can’t get the information we
provide anywhere else in Ohio. And as a result of our work on immigrant health
access, we engaged legal services attorneys, to work with us on strengthening
the state law that allows the federal Medicaid program to pay for emergency
services, for undocumented and documented immigrants.
And we’ve worked very hard to get hospitals to understand that they and other providers can get
reimbursement for treatment of immigrants for medical emergencies. So, you know,
we’ve worked very hard to improve access to care and ways to pay for care for
uninsured patients and immigrants. Our immigrant health work then led us to work
a lot with immigrant groups in the community who, and particularly in the Latino
community, and I should say that Columbus, although the census figures for 2000
said that we now have 21,000 Latinos in Columbus, the people who worked on the
census and other experts believe that the Latino population in Columbus is
somewhere between 50- and 100,000 people. And anybody who just drives around
Columbus and just looks at the people who are putting roofs on houses or, you
know, cleaning hotels, can see that we have a huge Latino population here and
there are housing projects in different parts of the city that are just packed
with very large families.
So we really don’t have an accurate count. But we
have a sizable population and a lot of them are new Mexican immigrants who have
no clue as to how to interact with our health care system. So the advocates in
the Latino community really saw the need to do some kind of education of the new
immigrants so that they could become self-sufficient and know how to interact
with the community and the hospitals certainly support this because they want
patients to understand how to use the health care system more effectively. So we
got a grant last year and we got a second year of the grant to develop a
curriculum and train lay leaders of the community to help organize workshops and
so we do workshops for new immigrants who both, not only do they not understand
the U. S. health care system, but they also have, many have low literacy and low
educational levels so it’s a real challenge to present information in a way
that’s going to be useful to them.
Interviewer: Do you have a title, a leadership title or how does that
Levine: Well the organization that’s the lead organization on that project
is the Latino Empowerment and Outreach Network which formed around six years
ago, formed by people who were working with the Latino community and who
recognized that the community needed an organization to be the voice of the
Latino community. The project is called Abrete Sesamo (Open Sesame) and
the funder is the Columbus Medical Association Foundation. And the Columbus
Medical Association Foundation’s 2004 Annual Report is filled with pictures of
Levine: Yes. I think they’re very proud of that project and we really hope
to grow this project and use it, be able to replicate it and grow it because
there’s a tremendous amount of need, not only for the health care system to be
more responsive to the needs of uninsured patients, immigrant patients and
people with different cultures, but there’s a need to educate patients of
different ethnic and cultural backgrounds about how to interact with the health
care system. It’s a two-way street. So we’ll help to develop
self-sufficiency in communities and immigrant communities with this project, and
also replicate it in other low-income, ethnic communities.
Interviewer: So you’re encouraging this population to be leaders in their
Levine: Sure. Absolutely. And the training of the lay health advisors is an
important piece of that, that we, you know, the Latinos in our project go out
and find leaders, natural leaders in the community, such as the pastor’s wife,
or people who just are known to be there to help other people and who other
people listen to, and get them to be lay health advisors so that they can
provide knowledgeable links with people and empower people.
Interviewer: Has this organization been recognized by the social workers or
the social action community of the general population, the older population
Levine: I’m not sure what you’re asking.
Interviewer: Well you’re working with an organization that’s dedicated to
these ends, and the people in that community are helping to . . . . those goals.
Are you getting workers from other parts of the community? For example BREAD,
the BREAD organization might be something that comes to my mind. BREAD has other
Levine: BREAD really focuses very narrowly on the issues it decides to take
up. But if you’re talking about what other kinds of organizations have worked
with UHCAN Ohio, we’ve had a tremendous response from state and loca
lorganizations, providers and many others. In the case of LEON (Latino
Empowerment and Outreach Network), the lead organization with the “Open
Sesame” project, LEON is a network so that on the LEON Health Committee, we
have representatives of the Columbus Health Department, Big Brothers and Big
Sisters, Directions for Youth, the Central Ohio Diabetes Association. Many
organizations that are working with the Latino community are coming to us for
help in improving the work that they’re doing in the Latino community. So
there’s a lot of networking going on if that’s what you mean.
Interviewer: Well I wanted to ask you for some more information about the
BREAD organiza- tion, BREAD standing for building responsibility, equality and
dignity. And that’s something that members of our synagogue are involved with.
Levine: Absolutely. Our Rabbi Berman and Cantor Chomsky were instrumental in
founding BREAD and BREAD is about to be ten years old. But before BREAD was
founded, for two years clergy members met to decide whether there was a desire
among congregations in Columbus to have such an organization. So they planned
the start of the organization and BREAD started when the Tifereth Social Action
Committee was a year old. And I remember either Cantor Chomsky or somebody else
coming to a Social Action meeting and saying that there’s a new organization
forming. It’s made up of religious congregations, many different, you know,
religious congregations, so it’s an inter-denominational effort, to tackle
issues of social justice in the community. And we’re supposed to bring five
people from Tifereth Israel to this covenenting assembly and I said, “I’m
way too busy to get involved but I think this is really important, sounds really
exciting to me to have an inter-denominational social justice group. So I’ll
go. But I’m just going as a place-holder. I’m not going to get
Famous last words.
So by the end of that evening, I was really jazzed up. I mean it was totally
exciting. There were people from all these different religious congregations all
coming together with a single purpose and that was to figure out what can we do
to make life better for the most vulnerable people in Columbus. And BREAD formed
three different committees and after, I ended up on the Poverty and Jobs
Committee because there was no health care committee at the time. The Poverty
and Jobs Committee did research. And this is the way BREAD works. I mean, first
they get a sense from the congregations, what are some of the social problems
that people feel the most passionate about. Because if people feel passionately
about a problem, then they’re more likely to want to work on it. And so it
wouldn’t make sense to take up something that congregations, that people in
the congregations don’t feel strongly about. So BREAD worked hard to identify
issues that people care about. We identified as a social problem that people
felt very strongly about, that the people who lived in the poorest neighborhoods
in Columbus only had access to really poorly-paying jobs because they lacked
transportation. And we found that there were better-paying jobs on the outerbelt
of Columbus. So we decided that we should look to improve the public
And there was a guy who I thought must work for COTA, the Central Ohio
Transit Authority, ’cause he knew so much about the bus routes. And it turned
out he was just a BREAD member, a retired guy who was an engineer who, you know,
with BREAD went to research meetings and met with the Central Ohio Transit
Authority. He learned about the bus routes. He figured out which bus routes were
underutilized and we ended up proposing to COTA that they make some adjustments
to their bus routes so that they would have the money to run more frequent bus
routes to places where there were better-paying jobs So we got COTA, in our
first couple of years, to really improve its bus service to job sites on the
outer-belt. But the other thing that we learned about was there was a model for
improving bus service and to link under- served communities with outer belt.
This problem was not unique to Columbus where you have the well-paying jobs like
United Parcel Service and, you know, big warehouses that pay better than
inner-city jobs, on the outer belt. We heard about a model called “Transit
Centers”. A transit center is a facility from which you can get direct
service to different places on the outer belt. During welfare reform in
Columbus, people were told they had to go out and get jobs. The County would say
to them, “Here, go and interview at this job at Tuttle Crossing,” and
you know, here you are living on the near east side and you’re told to go to
Tuttle Crossing. People would spend two or three hours on busses just to get
there. But with a transit center, you take a bus to the transit center and from
the transit center, you get a direct bus to Tuttle Crossing. So it helps
employers and it helps employees. So we, at the time we decided to work on
transit centers, there was some sort of a transit center already being planned
for Linden. But what it really was was what they called a “dog bone”.
It was a service between Linden and Easton. That was it. And we really pushed to
get it to be a full-service transit center.
The other thing that a transit center does is offer the services that people
really need, who rely on public transportation for work. So a transit center has
child care so that you take the bus to the transit center, drop your kid off and
get the bus to work, rather than having to take a bus to day care and then a bus
to work. You have banking services, health care. Hopefully you have supermarket
services nearby. So the Linden Transit Center was the first transit center and
then we decided, the second location that was selected was the near east side.
And we worked very hard. We actually went to Congresswoman Deborah Pryce and we
identified a source of federal funding to pay for the transit center and Deborah
Pryce secured it for Columbus and then we pushed and pushed and pushed to get
the transit center built and if you drive down Main Street, you will see the
transit center . . . .
Interviewer: Yeah I’ve seen it.
Levine: . . . . in there. And unfortunately, the grand opening was on Yom
Kippur. I did send out a number of E-mails protesting that particular choice of
dates. But that’s the way it goes. Anyway, so we also worked on the COTA
levies, hoping to first of all, secure a permanent sales tax revenue for COTA.
We won that but we also wanted to get an increase that would allow development
of light rail and that piece of it was defeated. And we have not, after that, I
mean our goals for our Poverty and Jobs Committee had been around the transit
centers so we haven’t actively pursued working on light rail in Columbus.
So after that I got involved in the Health Committee. They decided to form a
Health Committee and that was pretty exciting since it’s an area where I
actually have some expertise. And I’ve been a very active member in the Health
Committee and provided, you know, not only just being a member of the Health
Committee, but I’ve provided a lot of technical assistance in terms of giving
people ideas to research such as, I mean, when the Health Committee began, you
know, we all realized health care is this HUGE problem and neither our country
nor our state has been able to solve it so we’re not going to be able to solve
it alone, so we needed to bite off a piece of the health care problem that we
could get our hands around and we tried to figure out what could we do in
Columbus that would make a difference. And we focused on the need for uninsured
people to have ongoing primary care so that they can stay healthy and manage
chronic conditions rather than go without health care and present in emergency
rooms as very sick people. And that’s a huge problem for all populations in
the United States but particularly lower-income people and people without
Then we looked to see if there was any model and we looked at the
federally-qualified health centers as a national model for providing ongoing
comprehensive care. I mean, the federally-qualified health centers are more
likely, have to have protocols for how you treat people with diabetes, or what
tests you give a forty-year-old man who comes in for an exam. So the quality of
care is very good and they are created in medically-under served communities to
serve the health needs of under served populations so they tend to be culturally
competent. They have wrap-around services so that, you know, if I walked in to
my private doctor’s office and said, “I just got evicted from my house
and am living on the street,” the doctor would say, “Too bad, why don’t
you call First Link or a shelter.” The neighborhood health center or
federally-qualified health center has a social worker there to help on issues
such as homelessness because if you want people to be healthy, you have to help
them sort out all the other issues in their lives. So the Health Committee liked
the neighborhood health centers idea. In Columbus, the system of health centers
is Columbus Neighborhood Health Centers, or CNHC. Then we tried to figure out
how we could get CNHC expanded. And we worked on that, and in terms of the BREAD
work on the community health centers, we ran into the fact that the health care
leaders in this community had come together in a project called Access
HealthColumbus, AHC, started by the medical association and the Osteopathic
Heritage Foundation. AHC had lined up the business community, the hospitals, the
doctors. And their model was not built around community health centers.
And I wrote a report that UHCAN Ohio produced for the BREAD organization on
the failures of Access HealthColumbus, both in terms of the bad decisions they
were making in developing their pilot for the uninsured and in the fact that
they really didn’t allow community participation in decision-making. And we,
BREAD shared the report very systematically with city and county officials,
hospital leaders and other decision makers. I would say pretty much all of the
recommendations of the report have now been adopted. And fast forward five years
from the beginning of the Health Committee and this fall: the County
Commissioners allocated $l,l00,000 to expanding services at the Columbus
Neighborhood Health Centers (CNHC). So we won and now we’re moving on figuring
out what else we can do.
Interviewer: How has BREAD grown in numbers and leadership since the
Levine: Well gee, BREAD is now, I think we’re close to 50 congregations. We
were at 43 at the beginning of last year and we’ve added some congregations.
Actually we were at 45 by the support drive so we’re close to 50
Interviewer: Did you and the Social Action Committee find BREAD or did BREAD
find Cathy Levine?
Levine: Well I mean, the Social Action Committee of Tifereth Israel asked me
to go to the first BREAD meeting and so I don’t know. That’s a trick
question, I mean, I discovered BREAD and decided that’s where I wanted to be.
Interviewer: There are other things that BREAD is working on. We had a
meeting a few months ago to decide what our focus, the BREAD organization’s
focus, would be and some other suggestions were made for serving youth,
recreation needs and other things, what else there is.
Levine: BREAD has a Research Committee now looking at the different problems
that were identified by the process of congregations. I’m not involved in
that. I’m still working with the Health Committee to figure out what we need
to do with follow-up to what we’ve done before. And the other thing I want to
do in conjunction with BREAD is strengthen the BREAD team at Tifereth Israel.
You know, when we started, I think Tifereth Israel was the only Jewish
congregation. Now we have Beth Shalom, Beth Tikvah just joined and we’re
hoping that Temple Israel will join very soon. (NOTE: Temple Israel did join!)
But although we’ve been members since the beginning, we don’t have as much
participation from congregation members as I’d like to see and one of my
other, my projects within Tifereth Israel has been to try to figure out ways to
engage more Tifereth Israel members in seeing that an important part of being
Jewish is to be repairing the world and that BREAD answers the Biblical
call to do justice. And so we’ve done several “rethinking justice”
workshops at Tifereth Israel and we want to do more of that within Tifereth to
make people understand the connection between Torah and doing social justice.
And so I wanted help to build our BREAD involvement at Tifereth Israel.
Interviewer: Cathy have you received any awards or commendations for any of
the work that you do?
Levine: The first year that the Latino Empowerment and Outreach Network gave
awards, I got an award for social activism, I guess it was, for the work that I’ve
done on immigrant health care in Columbus. Democratic Socialists I think, yeah
the Demo- cratic Socialists gave me an award for social activism for the work
around health care. So I think we’re doing this interview for the Jewish
Historical Society. You asked me if I, you mentioned some questions which we
haven’t followed up on and you noted the fact that I, you asked me about, you
know, Hebrew School when I was growing up and I said I went for a year but other
than that I had no Jewish upbringing. My only Jewish observance as a child was
we always had Seders because Seders were the feast of freedom.
When I was growing up there were two kinds of Jews. There were Jews who went
to synagogue and then there were Jews who were social activists. And I grew up
surrounded by Jews who were social activists and I was unaware that any of them
belonged to synagogues, let alone went to synagogues. I think some of my parents’
friends may have belonged to synagogues and went on the High Holidays but I can’t
prove that. I just think that may have been true, but my father quit the
synagogue before I was born because he really didn’t like the hypocrisy
between people going to synagogue on Saturday and, you know, talking about
Torah, and then spending the rest of the week exploiting people. So I grew up in
an environment where Jews were, Jews tried to “repair the world”. In
the next room there’s a picture of my father with Martin Luther King. My
father was the President of the Long Island Chapter of the American Jewish
Congress, which in the 60s raised money for Dr. King’s movement. Both of my
parents worked on fair housing issues and other civil rights issues in the 60s
and my mother took me on my first march against the war in Viet Nam. So, you
know, I grew up understanding that Jews were social activists but didn’t know
a whole lot about Judaism. So when I met my husband on a bicycle ride, he was a
practicing Conservative Jew and he was not a social activist. But we really saw
the world very similarly and after we were married, I started going to synagogue
when we visited his parents. And I felt like such an outsider. And then after we
came here, you know, but we had a Jewish wedding and I learned to say blessings.
You know, I learned to say the Shehecheyanu for my wedding and we had an Oof
Ruf and all that stuff. As I started attending synagogue, I sort of wanted
to go back and learn what I hadn’t learned as a child. So, and there were
things at Tifereth Israel which inspired me, a number of things. First of all I
met Cantor Chomsky who was both very committed to Judaism and a social activist.
That was a new thing for me. And I got interested in why it is that when I was
growing up, a disproportionate number of Jews were social activists even if they
weren’t religious as Jews. So I learned about the tradition of Judaism and
I started learning more about Judaism. And in honor of my 50th birthday, I
took an adult B’nai Mitzvah class and I guess I taught myself to read
Hebrew. I’d learned the alphabet as a child but I taught myself to read Hebrew
and then as part of doing the adult B’nai Mitzvah class, I learned how
to read tropes. So I read Torah. It’s very difficult for me and it takes a lot
of preparation because I don’t really know Hebrew and I don’t know what the
Interviewer: How about the tropes?
Levine: Well the tropes are easy because that’s music. That’s easy and
Cantor Chomsky’s a good teacher. The musical part is the easy part. And, you
know, learning the tropes is not difficult. The real difficulty is that the
tropes do not appear in the Torah when you read the Torah and the vowels don’t
appear on Hebrew words in the Torah and because I don’t know what the words
are, I sort of have to memorize the words. And I’m hoping that eventually that’ll
get easier if I read Torah enough. But so far it hasn’t happened. I’ve been
doing this for six years now and I guess I don’t do it enough. But so, so that’s
the connection for me. That’s how I got to be reading Torah even though as a
kid I never learned any of this stuff.
Interviewer: Cathy, you also, I’m aware of the fact that you have other
interests. For example, the Citizens United for Alternatives to the Death
Penalty. You have anything to say about that affiliation?
Levine: Well that affiliation comes through my husband. I mean, I was raised
to be opposed to the death penalty but, you know, there are a lot of things I
care about that I don’t do anything about. It was my husband who was not an
activist when I met him, who got me involved in anti-death penalty work. But he’s
the one who’s really involved. I’m just a hanger-on. When Jon was a resident
I think, he went to testify at a death penalty trial because a man had killed
his wife, killed one of his kids and slit the throat of another kid. And the
kid, the second kid lived and that was Jon’s patient. And the prosecution
wanted Jon to testify that that was an effort to kill that child as well so that
they could get a death penalty conviction and Jon went to this trial in a little
county and the defense attorney looked like he had just fallen off a bar stool.
I mean he was not sober, he was not prepared.
His questioning of Jon was horrible so it was clear that the defendant was
not getting adequate representation, even to my husband who’s not a lawyer.
Second, the defendant, my husband figured, “Oh this guy killed his wife,
killed his kid. He’s going to be this big, mean old guy.” He was a
shriveled little guy, you know. Obviously, you know, he had mental health issues
to have done something like this. And killing that defendant didn’t seem a
solution to the problems that led up to this activity, to the horrible events.
And my husband just got very interested in capital punishment after that. He got
consumed with it. And we now have a huge library on capital punishment. The
other thing that my husband, as my husband started reading about capital
punishment, and I want to say at the time he went to testify in that trial, he
didn’t have a real position on capital punishment that led him to develop a
very strong position opposing capital punishment. But the other thing that Jon
found out was that all the capital punishment that’s happening in the United
States now is happening at the hands of physicians and as a physician he was
horrified. So he began learning everything there is to know about lethal
injection as the sole means of executing people in the United States right now,
including the origins of lethal injection in Nazi Germany. And lethal injection
cannot happen without either direct or indirect participation of physicians. So
he’s been very actively trying to get physicians to oppose physician
involvement in capital punishment, which will probably end capital punishment in
the United States unless we revert to hanging, electric chair, gas chamber,
guillotine, firing squad. So he spends a lot of his spare time writing about
this, writing and researching this issue and I edit for him and, you know, we go
to vigils when there’s going to be an execution in Ohio. We send E-mails to
the Governor and we do that sort of thing but it pretty much consumes a lot of
my husband’s spare time aside from his photography which he loves a lot.
Interviewer: What are some of Jon’s other interests then?
Levine: Photography. He’s a wonderful photographer. We spend winters
chasing down raptors. We spend a lot of time looking for owls and eagles and he
photographs birds a lot and I carry the equipment and point out the birds. And
he photographs kids playing sports because we watch kids playing sports. And he
also does photography at family celebrations such as Bar Mitzvahs and
weddings and he does that so that he doesn’t have to talk to people because he
doesn’t like socializing very much except in smaller groups. He doesn’t get
paid, has never gotten paid to do that. He just volunteers to do it for friends
and relatives. So I would say those are his main hobbies aside from cleaning our
house and making repairs and fixing the computers and installing electrical
stuff. He’s a busy guy.
Interviewer: Yes and you are also active in the political scene, for example,
your support of a possible candidate for the Governor.
Levine: Oh yeah, I mean, in my spare time I’ve been part of a group that’s
been advising Congressman Ted Strickland on his health care platform for the
race for Governor. I mean, the race for Governor in Ohio is going to be a real
critical one because Ted Strickland basically came to us and , “us”
being the social, the health and human services advocates in Ohio and asked us
what should his agenda be. He really cares a lot about doing something about
affordable, accessible quality health care for all. And so we’ve been talking
about putting together an agenda for his campaign. His likely opponent is going
to be Kenneth Blackwell, who tried to repeal the temporary sales tax increase in
the budget that ended last spring. Had he succeeded in repealing the temporary
sales tax, the government would have had to immediately cut health and other
social programs to achieve the balanced budget that’s required by the Ohio
Constitution. And Kenneth Blackwell is behind the Tabor Amendment, a tax
expenditure limitation, the so-called “Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights,”
which would limit government spending so dramatically that the government would
not be able to raise enough revenues to pay for education, local government,
health care and other vital services. So this is a fight for justice for all
Ohioans in this gubernatorial campaign. Yeah, in terms of my health care work
that I’m doing as leader of UHCAN Ohio, it’s real critical that we build a
health care reform movement in Ohio. I don’t think the federal government is
going to take the lead in health care reform. In fact the federal government
right now with its horrible Medicare Prescription Drug Act that privatizes the
drug benefit and ends up spending a lot of money for an inadequate benefit that
doesn’t protect the neediest Ohioans, the neediest people on Medicare, we
certainly can’t rely on the current federal government for leadership. I think
states need to be taking the lead in health care reform so for years I’ve been
working in Ohio to strengthen the Medicaid program. I co-chair the Family
Coverage Coalition which has fought to expand Medicaid coverage to low-income
parents. We cover children but we don’t cover very many parents. And, but we
really need to look at ways that Ohio can assist working people to get
affordable, comprehensive health care and we need to figure out ways that we can
reduce health care costs.
Interviewer: Were you appointed to this job? Did you create the job or how
does a person become . . . .
Levine: Executive Director? I actually was hired very part-time to be the
policy coordina- tor to follow state policy and I kind of, I developed that job
based on what I saw the need was. And so I took on leadership activities where I
saw the need for leadership and I’ve helped to build the Ohio Family Coverage
Coalition which is now a, you know, pretty significant coalition in the state.
Interviewer: Ohio Family?
Levine: Coverage Coalition. And it’s that coalition that’s been fighting
to preserve and expand the Medicaid program which provides comprehensive health
care to children and low-income parents and people with disabilities and the
elderly. We also fought to preserve the Disability Medical Assistance Program
which is a safety-net program for indigent adults who aren’t eligible for
Medicaid. And, you know, now we’re looking at developing initiatives to
expand, to use federal public money in conjunction with private money and I’m
in a frenzy right now figuring out what kinds of proposals we could come up with
that would really make a dif- ference in health care. I mean, if I could wave my
magic wand, I’d love to see us have some kind of a single-payer system like
Medicare, having Medicare for all and instead of wasting so much money on
administration and instead of letting the prescription drug industry charge
whatever it wants, to letting doctors charge whatever they want to. There’s so
much profiteering in health care in contrast to all the people who are going
without health care and the situation just keeps getting worse and worse. But it’s
politically unrealistic to think that we’re going to go from where we are now
with a market-driven health care system to a single-payer system overnight. So
at least for now, I’d like to see us pass reforms that strengthen and create
greater insurance pools and don’t leave people out.
Interviewer: Is this a state-funded position or?
Levine: Not my position, no. My organization is a private, independent,
non-profit organization. We rely on grant funding and on donations. So we’re
looking for money if anybody wants to give it to us. We get donations from
organizations and individuals and memberships. We get grant money from private
foundations. It’s very hard to get grant money for the kind of advocacy work
we do. We also get money, I do trainings on the Medicare Drug Prescription
Program. We do our trainings on listing uninsured people and immigrants with
health care resources. Increasingly, I get hired by hospitals to do trainings
about safety net program. We do whatever we can to get money to be able to pay
the bills. But, you know, I’d certainly love more money if anybody wants to
give it to us.
Interviewer: Cathy, it’s been a pleasure to listen to you tell your story.
I’ve wondered how somebody can grow into a Cathy Levine. There’s only one
and it’s a remarkable story and I want to thank you . . . .
Interviewer: on behalf of the Columbus Jewish Historical Society. You’ve
been living here for 16 years?
Levine: Golly, have I? I guess I have. Fifteen years.
Levine: Fifteen years.
Interviewer: Okay. So you’re definitely a part of the Jewish community in
Columbus and it’s good to have your record.
Levine: Thank you. Thank you Marvin.
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Transcribed by Honey Abramson