Recently, Anita and I mourned the loss of a spunky person named Esther Levens.
Esther, who passed away August 21, 2020, was a personal friend and a supporter of our newspaper and our non-profit VisionIsrael. She loved Christians. She used up all the glowing adjectives in the dictionary to describe how she appreciated the Christian community and their support of the Jewish people and Israel. She was a also visionary who, while diminutive in stature, was a giant on the world stage. Few would recognize her picture and yet her life is a tribute to what one person can do to spread love and defend freedom.
When we last spoke to Esther. her health was declining rapidly and her voice was weak, but her spunk and passion were still there. Her “voice” in speaking on the issues was still as powerful to world leaders who could not deny her influence.
We were always pleased to answer up the phone and discover her on the other end, asking if we were aware of this or that issue related to Israel. Once, we picked her up at her home for a lunch outing to her favorite restaurant. Before we realized it, over three hours had elapsed. It was a precious time and would be the last time we saw her in person.
Let me tell you a bit more about dear Esther
Esther Levens’ love for Israel led her in 1991 to found Voices United for Israel, known today as the Unity Coalition for Israel. Her work supporting Israel brought her much joy and earned her the respect of Israelis, Christians and the Jewish community worldwide. She worked tirelessly alongside her late husband Vrem. In a 2011 interview by the Kansas City Jewish Chronicle, Esther said she loved and supported Israel long before “the state was even a state.” She said she first starting believing in the importance of a Jewish state when she was a young woman in Kansas City working for United Jewish Social Services.
“I realized early on how really vulnerable Jews felt around the world,” she said.
A graduate of the University of Missouri-Kansas City, she worked with the very first wave of European refugees immigrating here following the Holocaust. She met them at the railroad station and was charged with finding them housing and kosher food.
Like many Jewish people at that time, Levens said she wasn’t really aware of what was happening during the Holocaust until after the fact because it wasn’t “accurately reported.” But the work she did with survivors was so important to her that she played an instrumental role in arranging some of the earliest Yom Ha’Shoah, Day of Remembrance services in the state of Kansas. Eventually she was appointed by several presidents to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Council.
Politics and Israel
Esther had been a widow since 1983, but she still beamed when she discussed the way she and her husband, Vrem, worked together for a variety of causes, including supporting the political career of Bob Dole. She vividly remembers the reason Vrem chose to support Dole, when he was still relatively unknown outside of Western Kansas, after meeting him in 1967 during his first campaign for Senate.
“The very first question Vrem asked Bob Dole was how he felt about Israel. They were very satisfied with each other’s answers,” Esther said.
Esther said it was always important to Vrem how people felt about Israel, because he was extremely passionate about it. In 1946, he had been involved in the Sonneborn group, which scoured the junkyards of the U.S. in search of tools, equipment and disgarded military armament. Those and ammunition were smuggled to Israel to support the Independence Movement. “He actually went to jail for that,” Esther said.
As is often the case with married couples — they were married 21 years — Vrem’s causes often turned into Esther’s causes. So he asked her to host an event for the senatorial candidate. Although she was told that “nobody attends political things,” Esther said about 500 people filled the back yard of her ranch-style home for the event.
Over the years Vrem and Esther remained friends with Dole, and Dole and his wife, Elizabeth, served as honorary co-chairs of a Gala given in Esther’s honor by the Kansas City Jewish community.
Voice of millions
Esther didn’t concentrate completely on volunteer activities. Several times over the years she worked as a professional for Israel Bonds. But her experience with Dole’s political campaigns helped spur her toward forming Voices United for Israel.
“I realized how many unbelievably dedicated Christians there were and how absolutely huge these organizations are,” she said. This recognition, particularly her embrace of conservative evangelical Christians set her apart from many other Jewish organizations that restricted their appeals to only those of a more leftist ideological bent.
“It’s an incredible reservoir of support for Israel and nobody had tapped into it. What was really amazing to her was that most of these groups that she gathered together didn’t know each other before Esther brought them together. Each organization thought they were alone in supporting Israel,” Esther said.
When she founded the organization 29 years ago, Esther said people warned her that it wouldn’t work.
“There was a lot of mistrust on both sides.”
Over the years, Unity Coalition for Israel convened an alliance of Christian and Jewish organizations actively working together to generate support for Israel. More than 200 autonomous partner organizations represent more than 40 million people, making it the largest network of pro-Israel groups in the world. Until recently, Esther sent out information to over 245 Christian TV stations, 1,700 religious radio stations, plus all secular media.
Esther once noted the group’s philosophy is that Israel is not just a Jewish issue.
“Millions of Christians resolutely endorse the principle of peace with security for the state of Israel. Because we work closely together, and speak with a united voice, our message is being heard,” she once told Metro Voice.
Over the years, through several large conferences in Washington, D.C., featuring American and Israeli government officials, Esther gained the respect of politicians from both countries.
Netanyahu recognized her importance
One of those is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In 1997 when he was serving his first term as prime minister, he sent Esther a letter following one of her Washington conferences, which he attended. He thanked her for her personal efforts, and the organization’s efforts, at a time when Israel was being subjected to many international pressures.
“The work of (UCI) is now more crucial than ever. I extend my warmest wishes to you, to the distinguished leaders, and to the rank and file of the organization represented by (UCI). Your success is Israel’s success,” the prime minister wrote.
Through her efforts she made many friends from around the country and Israel, including Yitzchak Ben-Gad, the former consul general of Israel to the Midwest and to Florida and Puerto Rico.
These friends included Frank Gaffney a former Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense for International Security Affairs during the Reagan administration, whom Esther held in the highest esteem. Esther credited Mr. Gaffney for her organization’s ability to thrive and grow. Thanks to the relationship Mr. Gaffney helped her forge with David Bar-Ilon, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Press Secretary in the 1990’s, the events held by Esther and UCI in Washington, DC were highly influential and brought huge support to Israel. In the year that Netanyahu appeared, more than 3,000 people attended.
After all these years, she was still dedicated to supporting and preserving Israel, reminding people she’s old enough to remember when there wasn’t an Israel.
“Young students don’t have that contrast and that sense of appreciation of our history. They take it for granted that Israel has always been there and it always will be there. They don’t realize the urgency and the immediate needs as they arise on the international scene to really rescue the Jewish state,” she said.
Today, with her passing, those students will stand on the shoulders of an international giant as they hopefully continue the work she devoted her life to doing.
Don’t be surprised some day if you read that Esther had some role in the Trump administration’s peace efforts between Israel and its neighbors.
Thank you Esther, for a life well lived.
–Dwight Widaman | Metro Voice