Naomi Levine, who as executive director of the American Jewish Congress in the 1970s was the first woman to lead a major Jewish advocacy organization, and who later became an instrumental force in New York University’s transformative expansion into a top-tier institution, died on Jan. 14 at her home in West Palm Beach, Fla. She was 97.
The death was confirmed by her daughter, Joan Kiddon.
Ms. Levine, who grew up in the Bronx in the 1930s, first aspired to become a public-school teacher. But, as she told it, she was rejected after taking an oral exam because she had a lisp and decided to pursue law instead. She attended Columbia Law School, where among the other students in the 1940s were such soon-to-be-prominent women as the pioneering feminist politician Bella Abzug, the labor lawyer Judith Vladeck and the federal judge Constance Baker Motley.
In the 1950s, Ms. Levine joined the American Jewish Congress as a lawyer on its Commission on Law and Social Action. There, often in partnership with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, she wrote briefs in decisive Supreme Court cases, including Brown v. Board of Education, which dismantled segregation in public schools, and Sweatt v. Painter, which successfully challenged the “separate but equal” doctrine established by Plessy v. Ferguson.
In 1963 Ms. Levine helped Rabbi Joachim Prinz write “The Issue is Silence,” a speech expressing solidarity with the civil rights movement, which he delivered moments before the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington. She later taught a class at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice on law and race relations in policing.
As she pursued her law career, Ms. Levine often found herself surrounded by men. “I knew I deserved to be there because I was as smart as, and often smarter than, everyone else in the room,” she once said. “And if I kept my mouth shut about it, I could get an awful lot done.”
In 1972, Ms. Levine was appointed executive director of the American Jewish Congress, a position that brought her visibility and influence. In an interview with The New York Times that year, she reflected on the women’s movement and the balance of responsibilities between spouses.
“I still feel somewhat guilty when I spend too much time away from home, and if my daughter got sick I would stay home and care for her — I wouldn’t expect my husband to,” she said. “The young girls today think differently, and they’re right.”
She summed up her view this way: “Women’s lib is probably correct, but it’s not my style.”
In 1978, Ms. Levine left the American Jewish Congress and, eager for a new challenge, accepted a position at N.Y.U. She was tasked with helping the troubled institution realize its ambitions of becoming a top-tier university.
At the time, N.Y.U. wasn’t the prestigious academic institution it is today. It had a meager endowment and, with its crumbling campus buildings and drab dormitories, was struggling to attract students. Ms. Levine began leading the university’s charge toward change as its chief fund-raiser, and she quickly proved to be gifted at the strategic art of raising money.
Over the course of two decades, she raised more than $2 billion; toward the end of her tenure, she was raising around $300 million per year. In 1985, she launched an unprecedented $1 billion fund-raising campaign, which earned her some skepticism, but when the feat was accomplished a decade later, the initiative was celebrated as one the most ambitious such efforts in higher education.
By the beginning of the 21st century, N.Y.U. had reinvented itself, and its expansion continued to accelerate through Lower Manhattan. The headline of a 2001 article in The New York Times called Ms. Levine, who was then a senior vice president, the “Dynamo at the Heart of N.Y.U.’s Fund-Raising”; the article noted that the expression “Clear it with Naomi” had become commonplace within the university’s administration.
“It is impossible to overstate Naomi’s contribution to the transformation of N.Y.U.,” John Sexton, the university’s president from 2002 to 2015, said in a phone interview. “Anyone who knows the generative forces that took N.Y.U. from its nadir, which is at the advent of her arrival, to where it was in 2000 and beyond, knows that she was one of the key generators of those forces.”
After stepping down as the university’s chief fund-raiser, Ms. Levine established the George H. Heyman Jr. Center for Philanthropy and Fundraising at N.Y.U., where she also taught a graduate course called “Ethics, the Law and Board Governance in Nonprofit Organizations.” She retired in 2004.
Ms. Levine’s commitment to social issues remained a through line in her career, expressed perhaps most personally at Camp Greylock, the all-girls summer camp in the Adirondacks that she ran from 1955 to 1971.
A mail boat would deliver copies of The New York Times to the camp, and Ms. Levine moderated discussions about current events with campers in a dining hall. She reluctantly closed the camp to focus on her work at the American Jewish Congress. Many campers, who still pridefully call themselves “Greylock Girls,” grew up to become leaders in law, business and medicine.
“Regardless of age, she wanted these girls to know you can do anything and be anything,” Ms. Kiddon, her daughter, said. “She believed she could empower these girls for life.”
Naomi Ruth Bronheim was born on April 15, 1923, in the Bronx. Her father, Nathan, was a salesman. Her mother, Malvina (Mermelstein) Bronheim, was a hospital secretary. When Naomi was a girl, she helped prepare a pot of flanken cholent stew on Friday nights in preparation for the Sabbath, and her mother sewed clothes for the family.
Naomi attended Hunter College High School and graduated from Hunter College with a B.A. before enrolling at Columbia Law School, where she became an editor of the Law Review. In 1948 she married Leonard Levine, an accountant who had fought in the third wave at Normandy; he died in 2001.
In addition to her daughter, Ms. Levine is survived by two granddaughters and a great-granddaughter.
After Ms. Levine retired, N.Y.U. recognized her with a Presidential Medal in 2005. She remained on the board of the school’s Edgar M. Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life and also advised the Taub Center for Israel Studies.
A few years ago, Ms. Levine moved to West Palm Beach, where she began writing a memoir tentatively called “History and Me.” She also started a book and film club at the Kravis Center (which her daughter described as “the Lincoln Center for West Palm Beach”) where members discussed social issues. After watching “To Kill a Mockingbird” (1962), they talked about racism in America; after “Adam’s Rib” (1942), they shared their views on sexism and gender inequality.
Ms. Levine hoped to one day show the 1933 film version of “Little Women.” In 2016 she told The Palm Beach Daily News that Katharine Hepburn’s headstrong portrayal of the main character, Jo March, had inspired her when she saw the movie as a girl.
“She wanted to free herself from being an ordinary woman,” Ms. Levine said. “That influenced my thinking.”