Dr. Barry S. Lever, a retired periodontist who was an advocate for the Exodus 1947, a Chesapeake Bay steamship that played a role in the founding of Israel, died of heart disease Sunday at Seasons Hospice in Randallstown. The Pikesville resident was 84.
Born in Harrisburg, Pa., he was the son of Samuel and Doris Hankin Lever. He earned a bachelor’s degree and doctorate in dental surgery from the University of Pittsburgh. He was a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Public Health Service and received certificates in periodontics from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and the Boston University Graduate School of Medicine.
Dr. Lever was a dental officer in the Navy Reserve. He settled in Pikesville in 1963, opened an office on Sudbrook Lane and taught at the University of Maryland Dental School for more than 30 years. He retired in 1997.
His daughter, Dr. Beth Gold, said that after he underwent heart-bypass surgery, he reassessed his life.
“He started to think — life is short — and he looked inside,” she said. “He decided to be a more involved dad and granddad, and he began his projects. He was a teacher and he was also a learner. He could connect events. He was a visionary, and he analyzed everything.”
Dr. Lever felt a story needed to be told. He revived the tale of how a 1928 steamboat, SS President Warfield, once berthed at Light Street, later carried 4,500 refugees in the aftermath of World War II.
“The true story of the Old Bay Line steamer that glided out of Baltimore harbor nightly on a circuit to Norfolk and wound up playing a role in the founding of Israel is one of those maritime sagas so rich it became a best-selling novel and then a movie,” said a 1996 Sun story.
Dr. Lever, who was then the chair of the President Warfield/Exodus 1947 Committee, organized the exhibit at the Jewish Museum of Maryland. He raised money for a 6-foot scale model of the ship to be built. The exhibit included the ship’s bell and and its steam whistle. A commemorative stamp was issued, a memorial plaque was installed adjacent to Baltimore’s World Trade Center and a tapestry was made.
The Warfield initially served the British and became a floating Navy control center during the invasion of Normandy, France.
Dr. Lever’s work showed how U.S. Jews, including Baltimore businessmen, bought the battered Warfield for $8,000 after it had been declared war surplus.
Rechristened the Exodus 1947, the refurbished ship sailed from Baltimore to Europe, where it picked up nearly 4,500 refugee Jews near Marseille, France. Many of the passengers were Holocaust survivors. The goal was to land the refugees at what was then British-controlled Palestine.
“In July of 1947 near the Palestinian coast, the Exodus was rammed by British warships, and one of its crew and two passengers were killed when the British Royal Navy boarded,” The Sun story said. “All others were transferred to prison ships bound for Europe. After the French refused to forcibly remove the refugees, they were forced ashore at Hamburg, Germany.”
The plight of Exodus 1947 and its passengers, many of whom were orphaned children, was widely publicized and helped swing sentiment in behalf of recognition of the state of Israel.
“Barry had a gentle way of sharing his wisdom,” said Marvin Pinkert, director of the Jewish Museum of Maryland. “The Exodus 1947 story crystallized public opinion in terms of the creation of the state of Israel.”
Dr. Lever was the World Zionist Organization’s volunteer chairman of the 50th anniversary commemoration of the final voyage of the President Warfield/Exodus 1947. From 2002 to 2013, he served as the Jewish Museum of Maryland’s special projects consultant.
“Barry was a true intellectual. He raised questions and helped make the culture of the museum inspiring to the staff, said Avi Decter, the museum’s former director. “He prodded and poked and made people think. He was full of ideas, opinions and history. He was alive and vibrant. He never stopped thinking.”
He was a member of Chizuk Amuno Congregation.
In addition to his daughter, survivors include his wife of 63 years, Sandee Levin, whom he met when he was 5 years old; two sons, Dr. Scott Lever of Owings Mills and Jonathan Lever of Chicago; a sister, Phyllis Horwitz of Michigan and Israel; and six grandchildren.
Services were held Tuesday at Sol Levinson & Bros.