On the first night of Hanukkah this year I had the privilege, however unfortunate, of attending the funeral of HaRav Avraham Yitzchak Levene zt”l. Rabbi Levene, as he was known, left this world on December 16, 2022 (22 Kislev) in Philadelphia and was buried in Jerusalem in his family plot, alongside his parents and grandparents, including his renowned grandfather, HaRav Aryeh Levin zt”l.
Rabbi Levene was born in Jerusalem in 1936, to HaRav Chaim Yaakov zt”l and Rebbetzin Shulamit Levene z”l, and named after Rav Kook, zt”l, who was a close friend of his grandfather, HaRav Aryeh Levin, the “Tzaddik of Yerushalayim”. He was the first child born to be named for Rav Kook after his death. When Rabbi Levene was a baby, the family traveled to London to meet his mother’s side of the family. They were there when WWII broke out and were unable to return to Mandatory Palestine. His father Rav Chaim Yaakov was able to find work in the US, and the family moved to America, where Rav Chaim Yaakov and Shulamit raised their children.
Rabbi Levene’s CV is long. If I were to write all about his childhood, educational background and rabbinical degrees and positions, not to mention his impeccable yichus and extensive family history that can be traced back many generations, I would need to write a book. I hope that someone will do that one day, as anything short of a book would not do justice to this incredible man whom I was fortunate to have known since childhood. Which is why, rather than focusing on Rabbi Levene’s education, illustrious genealogy and resume, I wish instead to share a few personal anecdotes.
From the time I was a very young child, Rabbi Levene was my family’s Rav. In fact, I cannot remember a time that the Levene family wasn’t a part of my life. In 1975, when I was four years old we moved from Wynnefield (Philadelphia) across City Line Avenue to Bala Cynwyd, an up-and-coming suburb where Rabbi Levene was the rabbi of the local shul, Lower Merion Synagogue. The Levene family was actually our closest frum (religiously observant) neighbors in our small Orthodox community. My parents were very involved in the shul; my father z”l was one of the gabbaim as well as the main ba’al korei. So of course, the shul was a major part of our family’s life. Growing up, I went every Friday night and Shabbat morning, and like all the children in our community, I looked forward to going up to the Rabbi’s chair next to the Aron Kodesh to say “Good Shabbos“, after which he would give me a lollipop. This was definitely a highlight of my Shabbat, as I certainly wasn’t getting any lollipops at home.
I was very friendly with the Levene daughters, and I spent many Shabbat and Sunday afternoons at their house. The Rabbi loved lions, and there was a large lion door-knocker on their front door that I had to raise my arm up high to use. There was a majestic aura as you walked into their home. But once inside, it was fun and full of life. There is a story in my family that has become legendary: When I was six years old I was having bad dreams. My parents spoke to the Rabbi and arranged for me to have a meeting with him. They reminded me that I wasn’t going over to play with the kids, but that this time, I was having a special meeting. I remember sitting at the Rabbi’s big desk across from him, feeling intimidated, yet at the same time comfortable enough to tell him about my dreams. While I don’t remember anymore what the dreams were about, I do remember him speaking to me in a gentle voice, in language appropriate for my age, and then handing me a small tehillim (book of psalms), inscribed with a personal bracha inside the cover. The Rabbi instructed me to keep the tehillim under my pillow when I sleep, and whenever I can, I should say a few kapitlach (chapters). I followed his instructions, and my bad dreams stopped. I was so sure that it was due to the Rabbi and the tehillim that he gave me, that I continued putting that same tehillim under my pillow for many years, battered and taped up, the cover nearly coming off and the pages ripped. I could not part with it.
This story is just one example of Rabbi Levene’s sincerity and willingness to help anyone and everyone. It didn’t matter that I was only six years old. I was given an audience with the Rabbi as if I was an adult, and I was treated with the utmost respect and made to feel that my feelings mattered. And this is how the Rabbi was with everyone, adults and children alike. Looking back, I find this truly amazing. In fact, I don’t think I have ever met anyone quite like Rabbi Levene in that sense. He greeted each and every person with a smile and a kind word, and was available to speak to anyone at any time. He was respectful to everyone, and always made them feel that their concerns and opinions mattered.
As I grew older and moved away from home, he remained “my rabbi”, still available for questions and to talk to at any time. On my visits back home I never went to shul without going up to to greet the Rav and say “Good Shabbos” (without getting a lollipop though…). And he always — each and every time — was genuinely happy to see me and would inquire how I was and what I was doing.
The last time I saw Rabbi Levene in person was in the summer of 2014. I was visiting from Israel with my family, and helping my parents get ready to make aliyah and join my sister and me in Israel. One Shabbat that summer my siblings joined us at our parents’ home in Bala Cynwyd. Knowing that this would be the last time we would all be together in our childhood home, my siblings and I, along with our spouses, took a walk over to see Rabbi and Rebbetzin Levene on Shabbat afternoon. We could have done the 5-minute walk with our eyes closed. We even took the old “shortcut” path, which led up a back way directly into the Levene’s backyard, which we had done hundreds of times growing up. We arrived unannounced, but received such a warm welcome. Some of their children and grandchildren were also with them for Shabbat, and everyone came in to see us. The Rabbi got up from his nap, and joined us in the dining room with the rest of the family, as we talked, laughed, and reminisced. It was a very special moment, yet I look back on that day with a bittersweet memory. We all knew that this would likely be our last time visiting the Rabbi and Rebbetzin in their home. A home we had gone to many, many times over the past 40-odd years, that we all knew the address of and even their home phone number by heart. As we left to walk home, the Rabbi and Rebbetzin said to us, in all sincerity, “You know that you’ll always have a home here”. And we knew that they truly meant it.
The last time I spoke to Rabbi Levene was in March 2019, when I was sitting shiva for my father z”l. Rebbetzin Choni called and spoke to each one of my siblings and my mother (May she have a long life), then put the Rabbi on the phone. As he spoke to me, the tears suddenly came on. He spoke so kindly of my father, who had been his former chavrusa (study partner)- my father had actually called him “the best chavrusa I ever had”. We spoke for a few minutes and the Rav then ended off by telling me something about my father which made me smile through my tears. He always knew just what to say and how to say it. He always found the right words, and I think that is why I suddenly became emotional. It was speaking to someone who knew me since I was a toddler, telling me how wonderful a man my father was and how he loved him so much. It was my childhood Rabbi. That’s it. Till this day I tear up remembering that moment.
This is just one of many stories- all 100% true-of how Rabbi Levene could and did affect everyone who had the honor of knowing such a tzaddik. As we commemorate the shloshim since this exceptional man left this world, we are all better people for having known him and his wonderful family. May his great neshama have an aliyah.
L’ilui nishmat HaRav Avraham Yitzchak ben HaRav Chaim Yaakov Levene, zatzal.