May 18, 2024
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MTA Says ‘Thank You, Harriet Levitt!’

Harriet Levitt did not set out to build an empire at MTA when she first began teaching English at the school almost 40 years ago, but she did. Dr. Seth Taylor, MTA principal and emcee of a remarkable tribute video dedicated to Levitt upon her retirement in June, said at its outset, “She had plans.” Based on her own experiences and love of literature, she was going to “take over MTA,” making sure that while focusing on Jewish texts, her students would not forget about the wealth of knowledge in the rest of the world.

Levitt was a teacher who wanted to get involved with her students on many levels. In 1985, she became the MTA yearbook advisor. This success was followed by her involvement with the college guidance department. Dr. Taylor shared, “She had the school in the palm of her hands.”

In 1988, Levitt introduced MTA to debate, with the debate team being perhaps her biggest success and lasting obsession. Understanding the students’ spirit of competition, coupled with their fine education, she created a winning team. “Would the school allow a female faculty member to take on this task? The school gave the rebbetzin her own shiur,” Dr. Taylor said.

The MTA debate team competed with other yeshivot in the New York area and traveled to other schools in Texas and Florida, winning major debates along the way. Dr. Taylor explained, “She was opening up MTA students to the agon of intellect and argument.” Levitt remains grateful to MTA parents, such as Faye Boczko, formerly of New Rochelle, whose sons were students at the school, as they assisted with the organizing and scheduling of debate team events.

The American Legion Oratory Competition, where students would debate on constitutional issues, became part of the school’s extracurricular program. Rabbi Eitan Schnall reached the state finals in Albany, and Levitt and her husband accompanied Schnall and his parents there, where they spent Shabbat waiting for the competition to begin after Havdalah. Rabbi Schnall was grateful to Levitt’s ever-present concern and encouragement.

In reviving the Arista Society at MTA, students became involved in chesed activities such as student tutoring, blood drives, the cultural speakers program and volunteering in public schools.

In 2013, MTA celebrated 25 years of the debate team at the school. Moshe Spinowitz ’97 shared his memories of Levitt, explaining that the skills he learned as a member of the team lasted a lifetime and served him well in his career as an attorney. To Spinowitz, Levitt was an invaluable teacher, mentor and friend.

Dr. Yehosua Levine ’99, a cardiac specialist, offered, “Mrs. Levitt will always remain a big part of my life. She taught me how to be a mensch, how to treat people with respect and how to understand your own role in helping others in need.”

The 1990s saw MTA students participating in the National Shakespeare Competition. Daniel Goffstein, in his soliloquy from “The Merchant of Venice,” advanced to the nationals as one of the top 10 finalists of 16,000 “bards” nationwide.

Levitt cites Rabbi Taubes, now rosh yeshiva of MTA, as her mentor and personal inspiration for interacting with her students. For Levitt, Rabbi Taubes represented the true spirit of “Torah U’Madah” as he synthesized Jewish texts with world literature. At the outset of Levitt’s class on Shakespeare, Rabbi Taubes would visit and discuss Shakespeare from a rabbinic orientation, such as the ramifications of the famous trial scene in “The Merchant of Venice” in which Shylock the money lender demands payment of a pound of flesh. How is a Jew to respond? Since our body doesn’t belong to us, but belongs to God, a Jew cannot make this promise. MTA students were challenged on many levels.

Levitt explained that, initially, MTA was the only yeshiva participating in the National Shakespeare Competition. Students learned to appreciate the beauty of words through the forum of competition.

Moshe Kinderlehrer, co-founder and publisher of The Jewish Link, shared his memories of Levitt. “Mrs. Levitt was one of my favorite teachers at MTA and I always enjoyed her sense of humor and passion for teaching. She made our class time fun and engaging and I think that nearly all who took her class probably felt similarly…As a teacher, she was never someone who could stay upset or angry at a misbehaving class or individual student and always looked to try to make the situation right.”

When Kinderlehrer worked at YU several years ago, he had the chance to reconnect with Levitt and “it was a pleasure seeing that her energy and love for the students and for teaching had not diminished an iota.” In confirming facts for this article with Levitt, The Jewish Link learned that, indeed, Moshe Kinderlehrer was one of her “favorites!” “He was always smart and sensitive and a pleasure to have in my class.”

In concluding the tribute to Levitt, Dr. Taylor commented, “Mission accomplished, Mrs. Levitt. Your goal from the very first days was to accomplish for your students what you have achieved in your own life—the marriage of Judaism with the beauty of the rest of the world. What a gift you have given your students.”

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