At age 90, Stanley Levy can remember participating in many Seders, the ritual meal served on Passover in celebration of the Jews’ flight from slavery in Egypt. But none was more memorable than the holiday feast the Jewish Welfare Board sponsored for students, teachers and the local community at Princeton University in 1944, as World War II raged overseas. Among the more than 30 guests was a Princeton scientist named Albert Einstein.
Levy was 17 at the time and a student in Princeton’s premed program. In those days, Ivy League schools maintained religious quotas; at Princeton until the 1950s, fewer than 5 percent of students admitted in any given year were Jewish. Levy attended through the V-12 Navy College Training Program, which sought to produce commissioned officers for the war effort. The war, Levy recalls, devastated the campus population, which had yet to go coed. Many students were serving their country; 341 Princeton alumni never returned from duty overseas.
Einstein, of course, was a Princeton celebrity. He had emigrated to America in 1933 to escape the rising tide of Nazism in Germany. At Princeton, he was affiliated with the Institute of Advanced Studies, where he worked on advancing his theories about the physical world. He was 65 when he accepted the Seder invitation from the Jewish Welfare Board.
Levy sat next to Einstein, making small talk with the physicist. Einstein took part in the religious service like everyone else in attendance, reading portions from the Haggadah, the text that guides the Seder. “He was not there to give a speech,” says Levy, “but to show his support for the troops.” (The board arranged Seders for Jewish soldiers around the world.)
Levy believes Einstein’s participation was less about his religious convictions, and more about the Seder’s cultural aspects. But he notes that the physicist was known to believe in God—and Levy deeply respected him for that.
In his later years, Einstein famously said, “I am not an atheist.” Although he did not subscribe to the concept of a personal God who interacts with man, he did believe in one that reveals himself through all that exists.
Levy continues to practice internal medicine in Detroit. His patients have included another famous figure, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, who made headlines in the 1990s as a proponent of euthanasia. More recently, Levy took part in efforts to eradicate the Ebola virus by helping supply vitamin C to affected regions.
Levy remains a loyal fan of Einstein’s. A year after the seder, he went for a stroll with Einstein to discuss his exams and coursework. “That walk was worth the four years of education,” says Levy. Decades later, Levy returned to Princeton with his grandson, Max. Walking on Nassau Street, he noticed a clothing store with a Jewish name on it: Landau. Inside, he discovered a museum-like collection of photos of Einstein, along with newspaper clippings, books and letters relating to the physicist.
Viewing this shrine, Levy realized that Princeton had no formal memorial to the great man. He wrote a check for $1,000 and, along with Bob Landau and others in the community, started a foundation to raise money for a bronze bust of Einstein and a pedestal inscribed with his achievements. In the end, the famed sculptor Robert Berks donated the bust, and the foundation paid for a granite pedestal and a small piece of land—called EMC Square—near the intersection of Stockton Street and Bayard Lane. The bust was unveiled there in 2005, 50 years after Einstein’s death and 100 years after the “miracle year,” in which the future Nobel Prize winner published four groundbreaking papers, including the special theory of relativity.
Looking back on his Passover with Einstein, Levy says, “I felt blessed to be in the same room as him.”