Through 125 years, 12 family members in five generations, five locations and thousands of funerals, Sol Levinson & Bros. has carried on its important, if macabre, legacy — death.
As one of the few — and for much of its existence the only — Jewish funeral home in the area, Sol Levinson has become an institution in the Baltimore Jewish community.
The funeral home business, also called the death care industry, is just that, a business. And like so many other industries, it is slowly becoming more corporatized. According to the National Funeral Directors Association, most funeral homes (about 86 percent as of 2014) are family or individual owned, but the remaining 14 percent are owned by corporations (the vast majority by just one: Service Corporation International).
Sol Levinson does fall among the majority of funeral homes in being family-owned, but now in its fifth generation, the funeral home is in a great minority of small businesses. Just 3 percent of family businesses operate into the fourth generation and beyond, according to the Family Business Alliance.
“We’re very proud to still be family-owned. Many funeral homes are not anymore,” said Ira Levinson, who is part of the fourth generation of Levinsons at Sol Levinson. His son, Matt, is the sole fifth-generation family member who works in the business.
When a number of funeral homes were being bought by corporations in the 1990s, Sol Levinson received an offer. They declined.
“It’s important to us to be family-owned,” added Matt.
And that is valued by the people they serve.
“You can tell it’s a family business,” said Amy Green, whose mother’s funeral last month was conducted by Sol Levinson. “Even though some of the morticians aren’t family, it just feels like family.”
The first Sol Levinson funeral home was started, contrary to what the name of the business might imply, by Max Levinson, who named it for his oldest son, in 1892 on High Street in Baltimore.
Before ending up at its current location on Reisterstown Road in 1996, the funeral home would have sites at East Baltimore Street (starting in 1911), North Avenue (1937) and about three miles down Reisterstown Road from its current location (1960) — locations that follow the trajectory of the Jewish community it serves. And now it actually has two locations with the addition of the arrangement center in Columbia in 2014.
There are two other Levinsons still active in the family business along with Matt and Ira: Stanley Levinson, the 87-year-old patriarch and last remaining member of the third generation since Burt, Ira’s father and Stanley’s brother, died in 2015; and Ellensue Levinson-Jeffers, Stanley’s daughter, fourth-generation and the only Levinson woman to enter the family business.
When Ellensue came to the funeral home business more than 35 years ago, it was an unusual place for a woman. Fittingly, it was a death in the family — her grandfather’s — that prompted her to become the first female funeral director for Sol Levinson.
“My grandfather’s death was my calling card,” she said.
Ellensue works part-time now; she is also a personal trainer at LifeBridge Health & Fitness.
“I have a passion for what I do because it all revolves around helping people,” she said. “To me, it’s humbling [work], and the respect we have from our community is amazing and so heartwarming.”
The entire Levinson family is this way. They take their vocation seriously and see it as an extension of their Jewish values. The themes of helping people and doing the right thing — as well as a genuine admiration and affection for their staff of about 50 — came up again and again as members of the family talked at different points with the
“We set out to help people,” said Stanley. “And I think we’ve accomplished that.”
Stanley has been working at Sol Levinson for 69 years. (In fact, he remembers the exact day he started, June 18, 1948.) As the last member of the third generation, he has the institutional memory and personal side of the funeral home’s history because he’s lived it. (For example, Sol Levinson & Bros. was asked in 1968 to help provide extra limousines for the Robert F. Kennedy funeral procession. Stanley took one himself and ended up chauffeuring Jacqueline Kennedy and her children, Caroline and John Jr.)
Giving back, Stanley and other Levinsons said, has been a tenant of their business and one that their family has passed down through the generations.
“We never said no to any charity,” Stanley said. “We learned you have to give back. You can’t just run a business and not give anything to the community.”
The community the Levinsons serve also clearly loves them back. In the course of researching this story, the JT looked through numerous testimonials and online reviews from various sites, along with talking to families, clergy and community partners, and found just one negative review from close to 100 reviews. Everyone else’s was glowing.
“We see them as peers and colleagues,” said Rabbi Andrew Busch of Baltimore Hebrew Congregation. “They are always open to our insights and opinions, and we respect them and always take seriously their opinions and suggestions as well. I’m able to do my rabbinic work knowing Sol Levinson is taking care of their end.”
A good relationship with clergy members is intentional, said Matt and Ira, and valued.
“What we do is a life-cycle event, so it’s very meaningful to people,” said Ira. “We have a special relationship with the Jewish community and clergy, which is pretty important. We also try never to say no to families.”
Sol Levinson serves Jewish families all across the observance spectrum and takes it upon themselves not only to carry out last wishes, but also to ensure they’re living up to and following Jewish traditions.
“They take this stuff to heart,” said Rabbi Steven Schwartz of Beth El Congregation. “It’s not just a business for them. I really think they see it as a sacred mission.”
“Having the experience of officiating at other funeral homes over the years, we have something very special here in Baltimore,” said Rabbi Moshe Hauer of Congregation Bnai Jacob Shaarei Zion. “They are the only [Jewish funeral home] in town, and they recognize the responsibility with that.”
Their good relationship with the community extends beyond just their funeral duties. They partner with various community groups, including hospices and Jewish Community Services, on aftercare programming such as lectures, seminars, bereavement groups and the bereavement library, among others.
“We’ve partnered with them not for 125 years probably, but for a long time,” said JCS executive director Joan Cohen.
The two had an unofficial, but very beneficial, relationship for a number of years, she added, which became an official partnership in 1998 when they joined together for a lecture series on death, dying and bereavement. Since then, JCS and Sol Levinson, along with other partners such as LifeBridge Health and Gilchrist Hospice Care, have offered ongoing and onetime educational opportunities. The funeral home is in the process of planning fall and winter programs.
“They certainly don’t have to do this,” Cohen said. “People are still going to go to Levinson’s. So, it really speaks to who they are. They are a heart and soul of the community.”
Now, Sol Levinson has launched one more way to give back in honor of its 125 years: the Sol Levinson & Bros. 125th Anniversary Volunteer Initiative, dedicated to Burt Levinson’s memory. This initiative, in partnership with the Jewish Volunteer Connection and The Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, will include small social actions that people can do by visiting the Sol Levinson booth at various local festivals throughout the year. At the recent JCC Block Party, the funeral home’s booth helped visitors make 300 blessing bags for the homeless. Sol Levinson will have a booth at the Pikesville Fall Festival at Pikesville High School on Sept. 24. Attendees will be able to create snack mix bags for shelters and after-school programs.
For the Levinsons, the work all comes down to what they see as their duty caring for families in a difficult time.
“We’ve tried to stay with our principles throughout the whole 125 years and just try to give really good service and take care of grieving families and the community,” said Matt. “And that really has not changed.”
Phyllis Ovcharek has seen this dedication firsthand for numerous members of her family, including, most recently, her mother. Their compassion and professionalism are unparalleled, she said.
“God forbid someone passes away, but you go to Sol Levinson, where else?” she said. “It’s getting to the point where people in my family call them ‘Uncle Sol.’”
That generational familiarity is common among longtime Baltimore-area families. Sol Levinson has records going back to the 1940s and ’50s, said Matt, and so there are families they have worked with for generations and whom they can tell how their parents, grandparents or other relatives were buried.
“We’ve done funerals for governors and dignitaries, but for us, no one is more important than the other,” said Ira. “We treat each family like they’re everything.”
Amy Green, who is a young and healthy mother of two young children, recently went in to plan ahead for her own funeral, though likely far in the future. It’s a surreal experience, she said, but an important one that Sol Levinson made “simple and, for lack of better words, not creepy.”
That experience served her well when her mother passed away last month. They had records from her father’s death and helped her make all the arrangements. And when she didn’t have enough pallbearers at the funeral, members of the Sol Levinson team more than willingly stepped in.
“I hope when people come to us, they feel they’re not just someone, but someone special,” Stanley said.
If love and respect from the community they serve is any indication, they’ve been succeeding for 125 years.
Sol Levinson & Bros. Timeline: