Like so many people, Mark Levitt lost sleep during the pandemic.
“There were many nights when I laid awake thinking about things,” he says. “There were certainly nights when my mind was working, a lot more sleepless nights than I was expecting when I took on the position.”
He’s referring to the job of president of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington, a two-year position that he wraps up this week. If there’s a playbook for the lay leaders of Jewish federations, it didn’t include what to do in case of a worldwide pandemic and the economic need a perpetual lockdown can produce. Six months into Levitt’s term, the novel coronavirus was silently spreading. Eight months in, Washington’s Jewish community — and much of the world — locked themselves behind the doors of their houses to wait out COVID.
Levitt, 65, says “a strong community with passionate donors” deployed to help the Federation respond to the pandemic, raising $4 million to provide those most in need with food to eat and money to pay rent. “The emergency response was, I think, quite extraordinary.”
With the pandemic receding, Levitt is enjoying his return to the new norm and is thrilled to watch synagogues and camps announce their reopenings. And he’s back to traveling. He spent last week hiking and biking in Colorado. He and his wife, Kay, will be going to Iceland in July and Tel Aviv and Paris later on. He also will continue going to art fairs and galleries and adding to his art collection.
“For me, it’s a process. I will see some I find interesting, intriguing” and then do his due diligence to find out about the artist and the piece. “It may take a year or two before I actually buy the work of an artist,” he said, before admitting that he has “no artistic ability whatsoever.”
Although he is stepping down as president, Levitt intends to remain involved with The Federation board and executive committee, and the annual fundraising campaign.
“It’s hard for me to imagine not having some responsibility, doing something in the Jewish community. It’s too important to me,” he says in a phone interview from Colorado.
Levitt credits much of his passion to his great-grandfather, an immigrant from Lithuania who came to Des Moines, Iowa, in the 1880s, and soon helped found the Conservative synagogue there.
Levitt grew up in Des Moines, which had a Jewish population of between 1,500 and 2,000. “It was just a very tight knit-Jewish community. You really felt a sense of belonging.
“I grew up in a family that was kind of the pillar of the Jewish community. That was certainly an influence on me,” he says. “While I am not a particularly religious person, I have a very strong Jewish identity.”
He fretted that closeness wouldn’t be replicated when he moved to the Washington area in 1982. But he and his wife, Kay, found that same sense of belonging and connection they had grown to love in the Midwest. They are longtime members of Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County.
Looking back, Levitt smiles at his fear of relocating. “We decided we would give it a year and that was 38 years ago, so that worked out just fine,” he says.
In Washington, Levitt and his brother, Randy Levitt, started Nellis Corporation, which they named after their paternal grandparents, Nelle and Ellis. “It’s a family-owned business with a variety of investments, but primarily in commercial real estate,” he says. “We have a portfolio of shopping centers.”
Levitt also joined his brother in Federation’s Young Leadership. He started with a study group. “That was really our entry into the community.”
He went on to head the Young Leadership financial campaign and then become president. He also joined the national Young Leadership cabinet.
Levitt also participated in the Wexner Heritage program, designed to deepen Jewish knowledge of communal leaders.
“Mark enjoys Jewish learning, not just for the sake of it, but because it helps him become a better leader, a better person,” says Federation CEO Gil Preuss. ”He then wants to use it to strengthen our community and our Jewish life collectively. In that way, Mark embodies that full sense of what a Jewish leader can be.”
Still, heading the Federation during a pandemic and a $7 million hacking incident to one of the funds in the United Jewish Endowment Fund surely could have taxed his commitment.
Levitt called the computer hacking “from an emotional standpoint, certainly the most difficult of my tenure.” He added, “If there was something I wish had never happened, certainly that would be number one on the list.”
He says he has made many great friends through his years of involvement in the Jewish community. “While it does come from passion and from some good role models of my family, I would say one of the things I enjoy most about leadership in the Jewish community is working with some extraordinary people.”
He adds, “I think there is huge potential for the community, and I am glad I could play a little role.”
Levitt family ties
Mark Levitt’s wife, Kay Levitt, has been chairman of the board of Capital Camps and Retreat Center and a long-time hospice volunteer for JSSA. His brother, Randy Levitt, heads the investment committee for the United Jewish Endowment Fund of Greater Washington. His sister-in-law, Johanna, is a past president of Adas Israel Congregation and a member of the executive committee of The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. And his niece, Rachel, and nephew, Pete, co-chairing the endowment campaign for the Milton Gottesman Jewish Day School of the Nation’s Capital.