Chattanoogan: Deborah Levine – Strategies For Diversity

Sunday, January 13, 2013 - by Jen Jeffrey

Growing up in the British overseas territory of Bermuda, Deborah Levine found it difficult to fit in her surroundings after coming to the States. Though she was born in Brooklyn (as the family was just passing through), she remembers her formative years on the Bermuda Islands and later her family had moved to the States to live on Long Island.

Her older and younger brothers were born in Bermuda and, after the family had moved to Long Island, the siblings frequented their grandparents’ house in Bermuda during the summer.

Deborah’s father Aaron was a business man in retail who had a great investment in Jewish life. He attended Harvard and had been a military intelligence officer for the U.S. Army during World War II in Germany and had been shaped by what he saw during the holocaust.

“My father decided we really needed to come to America to be Jewish. We moved to Long Island and lived in Westbury, East Meadow and then moved to Great Neck, where it was primarily Jewish,” Deborah says.

“We had never lived in a Jewish neighborhood in our lives and it was important to my father for us to have an upbringing in a Jewish community as much as possible. He was willing to sacrifice whatever it would take to reclaim our heritage. Great Neck was a very intellectual, very ambitious group of people who were well-educated. The public schools in Great Neck were some of the most advanced schools you could ever find,” Deborah insists.

Having been Bermuda raised and moving to Long Island at age seven, Deborah remembers the moment she was called out for being different. She was simply wearing a blazer which was her previous school uniform in Bermuda when a boy in the cafeteria cried out, “Wow! Get a load of them lapels!”

“I realized that I was the only seven-year-old in the room wearing lapels,” Deborah admits. “I dressed very British. Once, I wore a coat-dress made of angora blue wool. It was fuzzy with all kinds of buttons and I loved it. It was European fashion and people asked me why I was still wearing my coat,” she laughs.

Though Deborah wanted to fit in, she holds her heritage and family heirlooms close to her heart. One such treasure is a set of poker chips that were made from mother of pearl which her grandfather owned. Her mother Estelle had made a special case for them and they now adorn Deborah’s coffee table.

“I wanted to be a dancer and I told mother that I was going to be a famous ballerina. She said, ‘That will never happen. They go on tour; you hate to be in any bed other than your own. You are going to go to college – get over it’,” Deborah relays.

One morning, Deborah tried to get out of bed and fell to the floor. She could not stand up.

“It was my first introduction to a lifetime of health issues. They weren’t quite sure if it was lupus or some sort of systemic inflammation. I went through batteries of tests. They couldn’t fix it. In time it got a little better but I was told I shouldn’t even consider going to Harvard because I would have to walk around a lot. I informed the doctors that I was going if I had to crawl on my stomach! It was hard, but it was a wake-up call that the life of a dancer was not going to happen,” Deborah insists.

Desperately wanting to fit in, Deborah had spent a lifetime learning diplomatic approaches in how to interact with people and learning as she went.

“I’ve come to the point now, where I can share these strategies with other people - people who don’t fit in, people who may be dealing with others who don’t fit in. This is what I do for a living. All of this has led to me to help people, for example executives at Volkswagen, to fit into the South and how to get the most of the experience. Also, to learn how to be successful in a place in which they may never be ‘one of the crowd’ but they can be comfortably in the loop. They don’t have to be outcast or to conform at every turn. It’s a balancing act - what I call ‘harmonize don’t homogenize’. That’s been my motto all along,” Deborah says.

“People might feel overwhelmed and I know what it is like to be overwhelmed by it all. That is what my writing is about,” she says.

Deborah published her first short story when she was 16 for the school newspaper. It was the issues of her health which prompted her to write and she found it very helpful. She was good at it and enjoyed it.

“Writing had always been a part of who I am,” she avers.

Deborah created newsletters for organizations and was published in academic journals and awarded a research fellowship in baroque dance history.

“After college, I returned to dancing; I missed it so. My health was better but eventually it caught up with me later. I had my own dance company and dance studio teaching ballet,” Deborah says.

“I was in the very first Women’s Lib march, down 5th Avenue in New York City. I had been a part of the Civil Rights movement for years. I am not a brave person; I am just a passionate person.”

The heirloom poker chips had stayed in Bermuda at Deborah’s grandparents’ house. It was something that was always familiar to her. When her grandfather passed away, her grandmother came to live with them. Cousins moved away and family treasures were dispersed.

Refusing to ‘let the chips fall where they may’, Deborah insisted on having what she held so dear. 

“When I realized my experience was so unique, I had to fight the family for the things that meant a lot to me. I rescued the poker chips from a cousin’s attic and they have been with me ever since. They didn’t need to be neglected,” Deborah maintains.

“Everything you see here, I kind of wrestled from people, I started to do that when I had my own child,” she insists. ‘They mean a great deal to me. And they would have been left behind.”

Another treasure is her grandmother’s coral necklace from Bermuda, which is over 60 years old.

Holding onto her heritage and pieces of family history is important to Deborah, but it was also important to learn how to be successful as an American.

“I knew I hadn’t fit in when I was in high school. I talked funny, I spelled the British way and always heard ‘wrong, wrong, wrong’ and I knew it was right! I dressed differently because I would go to Bermuda to my grandmothers and she would buy me clothes. I dressed like a Bermudian. I didn’t realize I looked different.  This was a theme from the day I arrived. I had it in my mind that I would go to Harvard with all these intellectual people and I would fit in there. I didn’t. I had to say, ‘Instead of being upset that you don’t fit in, let’s see what we can make of it because maybe there is value in that’. And that is one of the reasons that I do what I do – ‘let’s see what the value is in being different’,” Deborah coaches.

Today she is married to husband Earl Berkin but she kept her maiden name.

Deborah was recruited to be the executive director of the Jewish Federation and given the charge to build the new Jewish Cultural Center.

“Sometimes I go back to Bermuda to do research and I pick up things,” she says pointing to a copy of an old map of the Bermuda Islands. “One of the things I do in my training is that I use pictures, art and music as shorthand for the culture. They say a picture is worth a thousand words.”

Deborah also has a love for words and is an award-winning author.

Her first published book - published with the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago - was called, “Teaching Christian Children about Judaism”. It won the National Catholic Press Association award.

“I’m putting all of the books that I have written out there on Amazon. A book I am writing now is ‘Going Southern - A No Mess Guide to Success in the South’ and it will be out soon. I have done trainings of Internationals coming into the South but also for young people who need to be globally minded and would like to work for international companies, and training executives who are going to European headquarters. It’s a different world for better or for worse and we are creating different worlds right here in the South. It is my job to connect them the best we can, where we can. They see how big the world really is,” Deborah maintains.

She tells stories using the chips instead of trying to explain the demographics of Bermuda. “People learn that way, I had to learn the hard way,” she says.

After processing and writing about it, Deborah learned not to just teach the facts that her students need to know; she also teaches lifestyles and how to communicate so that others may fit in.

“I want them to ask, ‘What are the problems? How can we correct them?’  And ‘What do they wear?’” Deborah says. “You know… where you won’t hear someone say, “Oh my goodness, get a load of them lapels!”  

jen@jenjeffrey.com



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