A famous Jerusalem grandfather: Reb Aryeh Levin

Fifty years after the famed ‘Tzadik of Jerusalem’ passed away, his grandson continues in his ways and perpetuates his ideals.

By DAVID OLIVESTONE
April 12, 2019 08:54
A famous Jerusalem grandfather: Reb Aryeh Levin

RABBI BINYAMIN BEINISH LEVENE: Legend in his own right.. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

‘If you had met my grandfather,” says Rabbi Binyamin Beinish Levene, “you would also want to be like him.”

Benji, as everyone affectionately calls him, has tried to model his life on that of his legendary grandfather, Rabbi Aryeh Levin, whose 50th yahrzeit will be commemorated this coming week.

If anyone can be said to have been unforgettable, it is Reb Aryeh. In the five decades since his passing, the love and reverence for this saintly personality have only grown. He is remembered both as the “Father of the Prisoners” for his devotion to the needs and well-being of the members of the Jewish underground imprisoned by the British during the Mandate period, and as the “Tzadik of Jerusalem” for his unstintingly generous acts of kindness, and his love and tolerance of all Jews.

RABBI ARYEH LEVIN was first to greet anyone he met on the street. (Courtesy)

In a sense, many people feel they have indeed met Reb Aryeh, through the books, articles, videos and above all the scores of stories about him. “People love to hear the stories,” says Benji, who occasionally leads tours through the Nachlaot neighborhood in Jerusalem where his grandfather lived. “Unfortunately, they sometimes get distorted, tailored to fit a particular agenda. But I make sure to tell the real versions, as they actually occurred.

“My grandfather lived in one small room on the street that now bears his name,” Benji recalls. “In my teens I was privileged to stay with him there during several summers when I came to Israel. It was then that I decided to try to emulate him in every way I could.” And indeed, just as Reb Aryeh would be the first to greet anyone he met in the street, so it is impossible to say shalom to Benji before he says it to you.

Benji was born in 1947 in Seattle, WA. His father, Rabbi Chaim Yaakov Levene, had been sent to the US in 1939 by Rabbi Meir Bar-Ilan, then head of the World Mizrachi Organization, who knew of his brilliant mind and Torah scholarship, and wanted American Jews to become more acquainted with the outstanding rabbis of the Holy Land. With the outbreak of World War II, the Levene family was unable to return to Palestine, and Rabbi Levene became the rabbi of a large congregation in Jersey City, NJ, which is where Benji grew up.

REB ARYEH wrote out this blessing for his grandson Benji: ‘May God be gracious to you, my son.’  (Courtesy)

After he graduated from Yeshiva University in New York, Benji began to teach a Talmud class in a local yeshiva high school.
“I had no experience,” he says. “I only got the job because there were no other applicants. But my grandfather was a brilliant educator who could see into the hearts of children and I learned from him to teach by example.”

Walking into the classroom with his Gemara in hand, he was greeted by a paper plane wobbling rather clumsily towards the floor near his desk, obviously a test for the new teacher. As he called the offending student to the front of the room, he asked himself what his grandfather would have done in his place. With all eyes on him, he took out a sheet of paper and expertly made his own paper plane which he sent soaring unerringly and gracefully towards the back of the room. “Whatever you do in my classroom,” he told the student, “you’re going to do it well.”

Soon after, Benji’s parents decided it was time to return to Israel, and Rabbi Levene accepted the position of Chief Rabbi of Pardes Chanah. Making aliyah with them, Benji enrolled in Machon Harry Fischel, which focused on the training of rabbis and rabbinic court judges. In 1973, he received his rabbinic ordination from Israel’s Chief Rabbinate.

WHILE STILL in yeshiva, Benji had derived great satisfaction from serving as rabbi-in-residence for overseas students on the Hebrew University’s Mount Scopus campus, and working with groups of students from the Diaspora who were touring Israel. Looking for opportunities to do more, he had a chance meeting with Naftali Bar-Giora, then deputy head of the Jewish Agency’s aliyah department, who recognized his talents and his potential. Again taking a position without any training or experience – which Bar-Giora astutely saw as an advantage – Benji began organizing two-week educational tours of Israel for rabbis from the USA, the UK, France and other countries with the aim of having them encourage aliyah on their return home. He soon moved on to become the assistant to Rabbi Mordechai Kirshblum, co-chairman of the Aliyah Department, and was frequently sent to England and the USA on speaking tours.

“This opened up many doors for me,” says Benji. “I became friends with many prominent people both in Israel and abroad.”
In 1978, another chance meeting brought him in touch with Rabbi Dr. Daniel Tropper, who in 1970 had founded the Gesher organization. Tropper was deeply troubled by the fact that Jewish identity, rather than uniting the many diverse sectors of Israeli Jews, had instead become the root of deep rifts and resentment. Through Gesher (literally “bridge”), he developed innovative programming that taught mutual understanding and tolerance, and sought to bridge the gaps in Israeli society. “As we talked,” Benji remembers, “I realized that this was where I could really make a difference in people’s lives.”

It was the beginning of a friendship and a relationship of mutual respect and esteem that continued as they worked together for 40 years.

“I learned so much from him,” Benji emphasizes. “I would always talk things through with him. He’s brilliant, a master educator and a scholar, and I loved his healthy religious outlook.”

Tropper sent Benji to Safed to direct the educational programs in the weekly seminars that Gesher ran there for mixed groups from religious and secular high schools. Through four or five days of carefully designed activities, games and trigger films, the students found themselves casting aside the stereotypes with which they arrived.

“I loved it,” Benji says. “This was the Israel that I was dreaming of, opening the eyes of each side to the other.” Years later, people still tell him that the most significant, positive experience of their high school years was the Gesher seminar.

For Tropper, Benji was the ideal partner.

“He exudes love for every Jew, and has influenced so many people not only by what he says but just as much by how he acts. Benji sees things that others don’t,” says Tropper. “One time we went up to Safed together and the staff lined up to greet us. But suddenly Benji was no longer next to me. Out of the corner of his eye he had noticed that the janitor was standing by himself way off to one side, and Benji had gone straight over to him to ask how he was doing.”

It was in Safed that Benji met his wife Edna, and they were married in 1980. Moving back to Jerusalem, he became Gesher’s educational director. “Many people get burnt out in such work,” he notes, “but it just energized me more and more.”

AROUND THIS TIME Benji developed and wrote – in both Hebrew and English versions – his famous The Four Faces of Israel one-man show which he subsequently performed thousands of times. His venues included both religious and secular kibbutzim, schools, community centers and army bases, as well as communities around the world.

Believing that the alienation and the conflicts between the religious and the secular in Israel were largely based on the stereotypes that each had about the other, he set about breaking them down through humor.

He created and played four characters, each one more outrageous than the next, who took the stage in turn:
• Reb Shlomo Zalman Deutsch: An ultra-Orthodox father of 18, with black hat, long black coat, and white knee socks. “Don’t think for one moment that it’s the army that protects us,” he would insist. “It’s only the study of Torah.”
• Motti Cohen: A chain-smoking, proudly Zionist but anti-religious Egged bus driver, complete with authentic cap and hole puncher. He didn’t mind observing Yom Kippur, but resented the rabbis telling him on which day to keep it. “If I have to respect the religious,” he demanded, “they also need to respect me.”
• Jean-Paul Simone: A French-Jewish artist living in Safed with his non-Jewish wife, Christine, and son, Noel. For him the Jewish past had no meaning; he found relevance only in the present.
• Harry Abelson: A wealthy American Jew who was visiting Israel for the 228th time and could not help reminding the audience how many millions of dollars he had given to Israel this year, “not to mention what I gave last year.” Despite his fervent Zionism, he had no intentions of ever making aliyah.
A moderator, preselected by the local event organizers, was provided with a script to introduce and to interview each of the characters. The hilarious answers that Benji gave and the antics he played out in each role were carefully designed to stir up the audience’s emotions and expose their prejudices. Sometimes forgetting or not even realizing that they were actually watching a performance, people would angrily confront and even denounce the character.
When Benji left the stage in order to change and assume the next identity, the moderator would pose pointed questions to the audience. “What if,” he would ask for example, “your daughter came home one day and announced she was going to marry Reb Shlomo Zalman Deutsch’s son?”

MENACHEM BEGIN was a frequent visitor to Benji’s home when he was growing up / BENJI HELPED his grandfather tear kriyah (rip his coat in mourning) immediately after the Six Day War, when Reb Aryeh was among the first to visit the Kotel. (Courtesy)

“Audiences,” says Benji, “tended to love the caricatures of those they disagreed with, but felt far less comfortable with those closest to their own beliefs. It’s very easy to make fun of another person, but it’s upsetting when somebody makes fun of someone like you. The nonreligious thought the rabbi was hilarious, but they didn’t like the bus driver, and it was just the opposite for the religious. American audiences loved all three of the Israelis, but when I got to the American, some became  very upset. In this way, I tried to open people’s eyes, to get them to look at the other side, at the other person.”

He would see people in the audience laughing uproariously, and he might have done the show for that alone. But it was all about the message, and at the end he would come on stage as himself and speak from the heart, powerfully underscoring the point by telling the audience “despite the stereotypes, we’re all one family.”

Among those who once served as the moderator was Yuli Edelstein, then a refusenik in Moscow, today the Speaker of the Knesset in Jerusalem. This was in 1983, when Benji and a colleague Rabbi Shmarya Shor went to Russia to meet with the refuseniks.

“When I first met Benji and we started chatting, I soon realized that I was talking to a wonderful person,” Edelstein recalls, “someone I would very much love to have as my friend.”

Benji mentioned something about an educational show he often performed in Israel, and Edelstein urged him to present it at a meeting of the Hebrew teachers group.

“It was one of the most remarkable meetings in all the years that I participated,” he says, “a great learning experience that helped us understand the challenges of Israeli society.”

After Edelstein was released from three years in a Soviet prison, he was finally able to reach Israel. “Benji and I have continued to be close friends since then,” he says. When he recently remarried following the death of his first wife, there was no doubt in Edelstein’s mind as to whom he would ask to be the officiating rabbi.

During his IDF service, Benji had been made a liaison officer at one of Israel’s borders. Soon, however, the army moved him to performing his Four Faces show as part of officers training courses, and this became his regular assignment for his millu’im (reserve duty).

“The show had a profound effect on many of the officers,” Benji relates, “and I even brought some of them – religious and non-religious – to work for Gesher after their service was over.”

BUT THE SHOW was only part of Benji’s activities for Gesher. He was – and still is – in constant demand as a speaker at schools, army bases, kibbutzim, teacher training courses and graduation events of all sorts, and as a scholar-in-residence at synagogues, both in Israel and abroad. Teachers, in particular, seek him out for advice and encouragement. The feedback he receives, even many years later, from those he has touched in his talks and one-on-one meetings, helps keep him going.
“If I ever feel down,” he relates, “it happens that people come and tell me, ‘You don’t know what you did for me.’” Many write to tell him about a talk he gave years ago and how it touched them and brought them closer to religious observance, and now, years later, they feel the urge to tell him how their lives were changed. “I was in a state of crisis,” reads a typical letter, “and you breathed new life into me.”

“Benji inherited from his grandfather the ability to get into the heart of every person,” says Yuli Edelstein. “There is a Knesset employee with some disabilities who proudly tells me whenever I see him that he is a chavruta (study partner) of Rabbi Benji Levene. And I know that Benji does indeed get together with him regularly to study Torah. Everyone he meets is made to feel that he is Benji’s close friend.”

STAMP ISSUED in honor of Reb Aryeh in 1982. (Courtesy)

Benji has made tens of thousands of close friends over the decades. One of the closest is Shimon Siani, executive director of the Yedidim youth mentoring organization. His family lived near Reb Aryeh Levin’s home in Nachlaot, so he has known Benji for many years, and the two have also partnered in their educational endeavors.

“I am certain that if Reb Aryeh were around today,” says Siani, “he would be thrilled to see the enormous influence and work of his grandson, who carries on his true tradition. Whatever distress a person may find himself in, Benji is there to encourage him and to get him back on track. He really is a person of great stature.”

His stature and achievements were recognized even early in his career when in 1984 he was honored with lighting one of the torches at Israel’s annual Independence Day ceremony on Mount Herzl. Fittingly, the theme that year was the unity of the Jewish people.

“It was one of the most moving events I have ever participated in,” Benji recalls, “and I felt so proud when I intoned the words ‘To the glory of the State of Israel!’”

As he visited communities around the world, Benji was offered several important rabbinical positions but didn’t want to be bound to one congregation. “One of the reasons I stayed with Gesher for so many years,” he says, “was because of the exceptional support I got from the Gesher staff and also because it gave me the opportunity to travel, and to meet so many different types of people. For all those years, my congregation had no boundaries.”

But five years ago a rabbinic position was offered to him that he could not refuse. Besides his work at Jerusalem’s venerable Yeshiva Etz Chaim, Benji’s grandfather was the rabbi of the Achdut Yisrael synagogue in Nachlaot where many of the members of the Etzel and Lehi movements of the pre-state underground prayed. Today the shul contains several memorials to those who fell, including those resistance fighters hanged by the British authorities.

Reb Aryeh was succeeded as rabbi of the shul by Rabbi Dr. Louis Rabinowitz, formerly the chief rabbi of South Africa, and then by Benji’s uncle Rabbi Shlomo Levin.

“When my uncle’s health declined and he was no longer able to continue as the shul’s rav, he told them to appoint me,” Benji proudly says. “I protested that I don’t live in the neighborhood, but it was more important to them that I would be continuing the tradition of my grandfather.” Benji and Edna spend Shabbat at the shul every few weeks. “It’s very meaningful to me,” he adds. “As a boy, I used to sit next to my grandfather, and now I’m sitting in his place.”

Having inherited his grandfather’s mantle, Rabbi Benji Levene is now a legend in his own right. His humor, his creativity and his learning have helped build bridges between Jews of all affiliations. His sensitivity, his charm and his spirituality have bolstered many thousands of people in Israel and across the Jewish world. Such work is never over. The grandfather laid out the path; the grandson made it his own.

NAHLAOT’S ACHDUT Yisrael synagogue contains several memorials to fallen members of the pre-state underground. (Marc Israel Sellem)

Rabbi Benji Levene’s favorite story about his grandfather:

One day in Yeshiva Etz Chaim, where Reb Aryeh was the dean of students, they served chocolate pudding for dessert after lunch. One little boy loved it so much that after he finished his pudding, he ran back to the end of the line to get another helping. The server, remembering him from the first time, gave him a slap and yelled at him: “You already had one; there are others who didn’t get yet!” Hurt and embarrassed in front of all his friends, the boy kicked at the cart holding the chocolate puddings. Down it went, and all the puddings splashed on the floor. “Now you’re in big trouble,” they all told him. “Tomorrow, when Reb Aryeh is here, he’ll decide whether or not to expel you from the yeshiva.”

That night, the boy didn’t sleep a wink. In school in the morning, he heard his friends whispering behind his back, “They’re going to throw him out.” When Reb Aryeh arrived, he called the boy into his office and asked him. “Tell me, is it true what they say you did yesterday?” The boy answered, “Yes.” “Will you ever do such a thing again?” asked Reb Aryeh gently. “Never,” promised the boy. Then Reb Aryeh opened his closet and took out two chocolate puddings. One he gave to the boy, and one he took for himself. “I also love chocolate pudding,” said Reb Aryeh. Then they sat and ate their chocolate puddings together.

Many years later, the same boy told Benji how in that moment he realized the power that a teacher can have, how one person can change the life of another, and he himself went on to become one of Israel’s leading educators.


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