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Mar172015

SECRET MISSIONS IN “THAT COUNTRY”

About the American boy who traveled alone to Poland against his parentswishes, returned to the United States, and accomplished much as the emissary of the Rebbe Rayatz and our Rebbe, including secret missions to the Soviet Union. * Presented to mark his passing on 5 Nissan.

R’ Berel Levy was born in 1923 in Bridgeport, CT. His parents were typical American parents. In those days, being a religious boy in America was very difficult. The only place that had any Jewish character at all in the land of endless opportunity was New York. So the ten year old boy decided to leave home and go to his uncle who lived in the Big Apple.

When he arrived at his uncle’s house, he was registered in Torah Vodaas, a yeshiva in Williamsburg. Every day the young boy traveled by subway for about an hour from his uncle’s house to the yeshiva. R’ Weiler, a teacher in the yeshiva, accompanied him on all these trips in order to keep an eye on him and they learned together as they traveled.

Berel’s mother had an uncle who was very famous in the Jewish world of America at that time. R’ Avrohom Ber Levin, who was known as the Malach, was a genius in Nigleh and Chassidus, and was a master orator who made a great impact on all who heard him. R’ Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, the menahel of Torah Vodaas, asked him to teach Chassidus to a group of the older talmidim. R’ Avrohom Ber included his young nephew despite his being much younger than the other participants in the shiur.

The Malach had an enormous influence on the talmidim and many of them refused to continue studying secular subjects. The Malach also had a great influence on his nephew. After a number of shiurim and farbrengens, the boy, who had no place to sleep in the yeshiva, spent the night on a bench in shul. The Malach took him under his wing and the boy progressed in his study of Chassidus at a rapid rate. When the Malach’s talmidim began changing their outer appearance, he did too and he began wearing long clothes, large tzitzis and no shirt.

Although he hadn’t learned Jewish subjects before arriving in yeshiva, he made every effort to excel. At this time, some of the talmidim began attending the shiurim and farbrengens of R’ Yisroel Jacobson and other visiting fundraisers like R’ Mordechai Cheifetz and R’ Itche der Masmid.

When Berel was sixteen, his uncle passed away. At this time, he told R’ Yisroel that he wanted to go to the Rebbe, to Otvotzk. R’ Yisroel was pleased with the idea but Berel did not have the money for a ticket. R’ Yisroel provided him with letters of recommendation with which he visited shuls to collect money, and had him sleep in his home while providing him with full room and board.

Berel was disappointed that he was unable to raise enough money for a ticket, but R’ Yisroel paid the balance and on 10 Cheshvan, 5699 he set sail for Otvotzk on the Queen Mary. He traveled with his friend, Avrohom Barnetzky. The trip they undertook had a big impact on their friends and another group followed them to Poland a few weeks before the war began.

R’ Aryeh Leib Gelman, president of World Mizrachi, was also on the ship. Upon his return, when he met R’ Yisroel, he spoke in amazement about the yiras Shamayim of the bachurim who were extremely careful about what they ate and refused to daven in the ship’s shul because women also went there to daven.

AMERICAN PRINCE IN POVERTY STRICKEN POLAND

There were many difficulties in acclimating to life in Poland. R’ Yisroel reported to the Rebbe about their pending arrival in a letter that arrived as they were still on the ship. “17 years old with great natural aptitudes, great-nephew of Avrohom Dov a”h (the Malach) and educated by him, and these past few months has come close to us and it is possible to make him into a fine vessel with Hashem’s help,” is how he described Berel, his student. Despite all the praise, for the American boy who was used to other standards, materially and spiritually, the change was very hard.

As soon as they arrived, R’ Chatshe Feigin wrote to R’ Yisroel and lightly rebuked him. “Today, two talmidim from Achei HaT’mimim arrived suddenly… You were supposed to correspond with the hanhala of Tomchei T’mimim… Regarding their material arrangements, you must understand that as Americans they are not suited for such arrangements… and spiritually too, they need special attention.”

If that wasn’t enough, about two weeks after they arrived, Berel became sick with one of the contagious diseases that were prevalent at the time and his temperature rose and fell. Throughout his illness he was unable to go to the zal and learn with the other talmidim.

R’ Berel Levy at a goodbye party arranged before R’ Moshe Pinchas Katz went to the United States. Sitting from right to left: R’ Shlomo Moshe Eisenberger, R’ Yaakov Felkenfeld, R’ Meir Glazman, R’ Mordechai Mentlick, the mashpia R’ Boruch Friedman, R’ Moshe Pinchas Katz, the secretary, R’ Chatshe Feigin, the secretary, R’ Moshe Leib Rodstein, R’ Shlomo Zalman Hecht, R’ Yosef Rodal. Standing from right to left: R’ Berel Levy, R’ Avrohom Barnetzky, R’ Moshe Berland, R’ Avrohom (son of R’ Dovid) Teiblum, the secretary, R’ Nissan Mindel, Avishkova, R’ Shlomo Zilberberg, R’ Shlomo Tzilech

With the arrival of the two “princes” from overseas, the yeshiva had to rent a much nicer room than the other rooms and this is where they lived. In Berel’s letter to R’ Yisroel he wrote, “When I went in the first time for yechidus, the Rebbe asked me a lot and told me to learn according to the schedule of the yeshiva Nigleh and Chassidus. When I walked into yeshiva, they chose for me two partners from the older bachurim in the zal. R’ Ber tested me in Chassidus and the rosh yeshiva tested me in Gemara and they said I could learn in the kibbutz (the group that learned without a full-time teacher).

“I learn Gemara Kiddushin and P’sachim with everyone. They gave me one of the best bachurim in the zal for Gemara. For Chassidus, they gave me a geshmaker bachur and I learn in the two lower grades. I learn 5665 with R’ Boruch Friedman the mashpia and 5666 with R’ Berel Kurenitzer, which means I hear classes from both of them.”

During the year he spent in Otvotzk, he was very impressed by the personality of the rosh yeshiva, the Chassidishe mashpiim, and the high level of learning. However, without a doubt, what made the greatest impression was being in the presence of the Rebbe and the privilege of having yechidus. Another friend who made an enormous impression was one of his roommates, Mendel Tenenbaum who was one of the star pupils in the yeshiva. He would wait until everyone in the room was asleep and then say T’hillim with tears pouring down his face.

Despite the positive letter and the help from the yeshiva both materially and spiritually, the tremendous difference between the Polish boys and the American boys was apparent and it was very hard. In his book, Zichron Livnei Yisroel, R’ Yisroel compared this to the sicha of the Rebbe Rashab about Tomchei T’mimim, that in the first three years it’s arla and only afterward can you eat the fruit, and there were fruits indeed.

RETURNING TO THE USA

It was Friday, 17 Elul 5699/1939, a seemingly ordinary day, until the sounds of explosions outside could be heard. The talmidim, who at first had no idea what was going on, went outside and were astounded to see craters in the ground from the bombs that had landed from German planes and people were running in confusion. That cursed day was the beginning of World War II and Otvotzk was one of the first places to be strafed. The young man sadly looked at the Jewish children crying near the body of their dead father, and at the body parts of Jews scattered in the street, something which made an indelible impression on him.

The Rebbe told the American talmidim to go to Riga and to wait there for further instructions. The American consul in Warsaw refused to allow them to enter. In the end, the talmidim managed somehow to get to Riga and from there to Sweden and Norway on their way back to America. The trip was difficult and dangerous and divine providence accompanied them with a series of miracles until they arrived back on safe shores.

A few months later, the Rebbe Rayatz arrived in the United States and announced the founding of a yeshiva. R’ Berel was one of the first talmidim. His parents, seeing his new path as a youthful rebellion, refused to support him. This was one of the factors that shaped his personality as an independent Jew and Chassid. He spent his days learning in 770 and the cold winter nights in a small rented room with very little money for food or warm clothing. He had pneumonia twice, which in those days, before penicillin, was a dangerous illness. The treatment back then was medication whose side effects did not allow him to walk. He could not stop taking the medicine but thank G-d, he recovered and returned to learn in Beis Chayeinu.

In 1944, the Rebbe sent R’ Mordechai Altein to New Haven to start a yeshiva, knowing that Berel Levy, a chassan, would be going there right after he married, about a month later. R’ Berel worked tirelessly to establish the yeshiva despite the huge difficulties which caused some of the Chassidim there to leave the city. Two of his children were born in New Haven, a son and a daughter.

From New Haven they moved to Lakewood where he worked for over three years in the Jewish school. After Lakewood they moved to Elizabeth and lived there for seven years as a shliach. Most of the children in his children’s classes were not frum but he instilled very strong Jewish foundations in his children. Years later, when they switched to religious schools, they fit right in as though they had always learned in schools like that. The strength to support his children who were going against the current he got from the time that he himself went against the current when he learned in 770.

When he moved to Brooklyn in 1960, he began working for Torah U’Mesorah. He served as the unofficial go-between of the Rebbe with other Jewish leaders including the Satmar Rebbe. It once happened that he spent an entire night talking to the Satmar Rebbe. The Rebbe spoke to him in private audiences for hours about chinuch of children in America. R’ Levy also forged a strong connection with R’ Moshe Feinstein z”l.

LEADER IN THE KASHRUS REVOLUTION

In the middle of the 60’s, R’ Levy began working in kashrus. In 1968 he bought the OK kosher certification and that’s when the revolution began.

On his travels from one factory to another, he visited countries that were unfriendly to the Jewish people such as Malaysia and other countries in the Far East. The Rebbe often asked him to carry out certain missions in foreign countries, which of course he did. For example, he built a mikva in the Philippines on one trip and set up a mechitza in a shul in Kobe, Japan on another trip.

WHEN RUSSIAN CHASSIDIM SING THE YUD-ALEF NISSAN NIGGUN

The highlight of the missions he carried out for the Rebbe around the world was in “that country,” i.e. the Soviet Union. On his many trips there, he would make contact with Chassidim and Jews and bring them a message from the Rebbe, instructions and items that he sent and he would give the Rebbe regards from Chassidim behind the Iron Curtain.

At the end of the 70’s, he would make movies of the Jews there and the Rebbe would watch them on Nittel Nacht. The Rebbe would often wipe a tear as he watched the movie. In 5737/1977, after showing the Rebbe the gravesites of the Rebbeim, he showed a farbrengen of Chassidim in Russia. When these Chassidim sang “V’Chol Karnei,” the song for Yud-Alef Nissan of that year, the Rebbe cried. When they saw the house of the Rebbe Rashab, the Rebbetzin commented, “I still remember my grandfather living in the building.”

In 5739, when R’ Levy left the Rebbe’s room after an hour and a half of the Rebbe watching the movie. The Rebbe stood the entire time. When he was pressed to tell something about this yechidus, he said, “At the beginning of the yechidus I gave the Rebbe regards from the Chassidim in Russia. I told the Rebbe in their name that they are no different than the Chassidim in America. They also say l’chaim for the Rebbe’s welfare and they also sing, ‘Ata HaKeil Oseh Pelleh.’ Hearing this, the Rebbe burst into tears.”

The trips were dangerous. The KGB followed every move he made. One time, R’ Levy had to go somewhere but there were no available taxis. He turned to the agent who was attached to him like a shadow and asked him, “Listen, if you have to go everywhere with me, can you at least give me a ride?”

R’ Levy passed away on 5 Nissan 5747/1987.

 

THE REBBE SEES THE MIKVA IN COPENHAGEN

One year, R’ Levy went on a business trip to Copenhagen, Denmark. Before the trip, he submitted a note asking for a bracha. To his astonishment, besides the usual bracha, the Rebbe added the words, “If you could check the mikva.” R’ Levy, who had gone to Copenhagen for one day, was not able to reach the person in charge of the mikva and having no choice, he left the city without checking the mikva.

A year later, having forgotten about the matter, he was about to travel there again. Once again, he asked for a bracha and once again he received the surprising note about checking the mikva. This time, R’ Levy decided he would stay as long as it took until he got the keys to the mikva.

He went to the mikva and immersed and as he did so, he noticed a hole in the wall. At first he thought this was the connecting pipe to the rainwater pit. When he came out and looked from the outside, he discovered that the water was spilling on the floor!

“Who gave the hechsher on this mikva?” he wondered out loud to the attendant.

“R’ Posen of London, an expert on mikvaos,” he said.

R’ Levy met with R’ Posen in London. Upon being asked about the mikva, R’ Posen said in surprise that he had given the Jews some instructions about how to fix the problem but perhaps they had not done as he said.

“Did you ever write about it to the Rebbe?” asked R’ Levy.

“I never sent the Rebbe a letter about anything at all,” replied R’ Posen.

It was open ruach ha’kodesh.

 

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