In honor of Yud Shevat we present an excerpt from the new book Kosher Investigator, about the mission the Rebbe Rayatz gave Rabbi Berel Levy to spearhead the Chabad day school in New Haven, Connecticut.
by Dovid Zaklikowski – Hasidic Archives
In March 1940, the Rebbe Rayatz, having miraculously escaped the inferno in Europe, arrived in New York and proclaimed, “America is no different.” Just as Torah scholarship and observance had flourished in Europe, so it would flourish in the goldene medina. He and his followers would do all they could to save European Jews from destruction, but education in America was an equally urgent matter. He would not go to sleep, he said, before a school was established.
Berel was one of the original ten students who joined that first school in the basement of the small Oneg Shabbos Synagogue in Brooklyn’s East Flatbush neighborhood. The yeshivah would later move to Crown Heights, where the rebbe established his court, at 770 Eastern Parkway.
“The group of Americans that came to Otwock had great self-sacrifice,” said Rabbi Yosef Wineberg, “and it was through them that the yeshivah [was] able to be replanted in the United States. Rabbi Levy was one of those who laid the foundation for what Chabad is today in America.”
With little money and no support from his parents, Berel persevered in his studies under very difficult conditions. He would spend his days at the Lubavitch Yeshivah, but at night, in the bitter cold winter, he slept in a small rented room without much heating. Twice he ended up in the hospital with pneumonia, a life-threatening illness at the time.
The treatment for pneumonia was sulfa drugs, which had severe side effects, impeding his ability to walk. Berel knew he could not stop taking the drugs, but he also refused to lighten his study regimen. With what little strength he had, he managed to cope with the side effects and fight off the infection while keeping to his rigorous schedule.
“When I was in school,” Rabbi Levy told a reporter in March 1982, “I studied Jewish law from seven a.m. to midnight daily, with Friday afternoons off to prepare for the Sabbath. Sometimes I slept on a bench in school. I never went home; I’d get up in the morning and start studying again.”
The local draft board in Brooklyn had decided that yeshivah students did not qualify for student exemptions, and many of the Chabad students were summoned to appear for examinations.
“Berel was very religious,” Shmuel Popack, a fellow student, recalled. “When he was examined, he refused to remove his tzitzis.” At the time, the four-cornered garments, with fringes attached, were made with a slit in the front, and the students of the Chabad yeshiva would sew a button onto the top.
A chest x-ray was required as part of the exam, and on Berel’s x-ray, the doctors mistook the button on his tzitzit for a lung lesion from tuberculosis. He was granted a medical deferment.
In 1944 the Rayatz sent Rabbi Mordechai Altein to begin the process of opening a Lubavitch school in New Haven, Connecticut. The consensus at the time was that a Jewish school was not viable in New Haven, a previous attempt at starting one having been unsuccessful. But the Rayatz felt that abandoning the community was not an option, and that if the school had the right leadership, it would be a success.
In a private audience, during the future Mrs. Levy’s first visit to Chabad headquarters, the Rayatz spoke to Rabbi Levy about the plans and asked him to lead the school. The rebbe discussed what he saw the school accomplishing and how it should be done. He had a clear vision, and Rabbi Levy was to follow the guidelines.
Then, the rebbe, who did not speak clearly because of an illness, turned to Thelma and said that surely she would also teach at the new girls’ school. Her face turned white.
“I felt like someone shot me,” Mrs. Levy recalled. “I was trained to be a bookkeeper. I didn’t know how to go into the classroom and say good morning to the children.”
Seeing her reaction, Rabbi Levy motioned for her to calm down and not to respond.
Her mind racing, Thelma heard nothing else during the audience. Outside of the rebbe’s office, all she could say was “I don’t know what I am going to do.”
“Don’t worry,” her fiance told her, “I will guide you in your teaching.”
The young bride quickly realized that joining her husband in Chabad would mean developing the mindset of a soldier. After that, she said, “I was ready to accept and never complained.”
Rabbi Mordechai Altein did the preliminaries and made contacts for them in the community, and after their marriage the couple moved straight to New Haven. Rabbi Levy was to lead the school, and Mrs. Levy was to be a teacher. Rabbi Velvl Schildkraut came to assist. It was summertime, and they began the school immediately with four children in the dining room of a private home.
By the fall, the school had already purchased a new building and enrolled tens of students. To attract more students, current students marched through the Jewish neighborhoods singing and chanting Jewish slogans. The children also came to synagogue with new kippahs emblazoned with the school’s name.
“Entering into their new comfortable location, the New Haven day school grew in quantity and quality and is acclimating very well,” reported the periodical Kovetz Lubavitch in the fall of 1944. “The school is headed by an alumnus of the Central Lubavitch Yeshivah in Brooklyn, the talented Rabbi Berel Levy.”
At the time there were roughly 25,000 Jewish families in New Haven. They were mostly first- or second-generation European immigrants who arrived shortly before the Great Depression in the 1930s, when many lost their jobs and families went hungry.
These families just wanted to be left alone to build their financial stability. “They focused their outlook sharply on assimilation,” wrote Zalman Schachter, who taught at the school in the 1940s, in his autobiography. “Trying to establish a Hasidic day school [in New Haven] proved to be among the most daunting tasks I have ever faced.”
In those early years, Rabbi Levy fought valiantly to keep the school running. Every morning he would ferry the children from their homes in a makeshift “school bus.” He would then run the school with an inadequate staff. After he dropped the children at their homes, he went to work recruiting more students and fundraising to cover the school’s deficit.
The school grew, and soon there was an active girls’ school as well, where Mrs. Levy taught. “Every single day he used to tell me what to do,” said Mrs. Levy, who taught for several decades and was honored by Torah Umesorah as one of the top teachers in the Jewish Day School movement, “and that is what I did and was successful.”
New Haven resident Micky Epstein recalled the Levys’ arrival in the community. “They were very good people,” she said. Before they came, there was no one in the city she felt she could look up to and learn from as a Jewish role model, “but they were really wonderful,” the 87-year-old said. “It was so nice having them in New Haven. I still think about the Levys and the impression they made on me.”
Rabbi Levy also established a branch of the school in West Haven. “Rabbi B. Levy, principal of the Yeshivah Achei Tmimim Lubavitch of New Haven, announces that a branch afternoon school has been opened,” a local newspaper reported. “Jewish residents of West Haven who have wanted to give their children a Jewish education will now be able to do so.”
For Rabbi Levy, who was still covering the school’s budget, things became really difficult when a prized donor gave him an ultimatum: if the school did not become coed, he would cease to support it. Feeling that this was an existential crisis, Rabbi Levy travelled to New York to consult the Rayatz. The trip was not simple in those days, and he seldom went.
Rabbi Levy described his dilemma in a private audience with the rebbe. “If you make it mixed,” the Rayatz responded, “for what do I need the entire school?” The idea was dropped, and the donor withdrew his support.