12/7/09

David E. Y. Sarna - Guest Blog: The Bostoner Rebbe – A Quiet Revolutionary

REMEMBRANCES: Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz (1921 - 2009)
The Bostoner Rebbe – A Quiet Revolutionary

Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz, America’s first US-born Hassidic Rebbi died on Saturday. He served his congregants for 66 years, in Boston since assuming his father’s mantle at Congregation Beth Pinchas  in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1943 and since 1999 in Har Nof, Jerusalem, Israel as well.
Fervently Orthodox, and the descendant of the Hasidic dynasty which traces its origins to Rabbi Dovid (1746-1814) of Lelów, Poland, he was an unlikely revolutionary.
Bostoner_Rebbe_at_Koissel.jpgI was privileged to know him since 1965. His passing, after an illness of several months, brought back to me a flood of memories.
He had a long string of “firsts.”
He was the first to make a primary thrust of his Rabbinate the Boston area's large number of college students, many of whom were away from home for the first time. He turned his own home into a virtual hotel, filling it to capacity (and beyond) hosting college students for weekends, and training his congregants to do likewise. Many had tried to dissuade him, saying that Hasidism and college did not and could not mix, but the Rebbe persevered and was personally responsible for returning thousands of students at Brandeis University, Harvard University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Tufts and the Boston areas’s other famous universities to their Jewish roots.
In 1944, he traveled to Washington with a group of leading Rabbis of the day, on the eve of Yom Kippur, to plead with President Franklin D. Roosevelt to rescue Jews from Hitler (President Roosevelt refused to meet with them).  He marched with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.  from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama in 1965. He opposed the war in Vietnam, and opened a Yeshiva with hours structured so college and graduate students could attend their classes, and still be enrolled “full-time” in his Yeshiva, qualifying for a draft deferral.
He was one of the very first Orthodox Rabbis to be more inclusive of women. He had engineers from MIT design the traditional mechitza (separation) between men and women using one-way glass, so the men could not look at the women while praying, which is forbidden, while offering the women an unobstructed view of the proceedings. He also had the mikvah (ritualarium) designed with two chambers so that in effect, each woman could immerse in fresh water, while technically adhering to the requirement that a mikvah must contain 40 seah (24 cubic feet) of rain water. He also ensured that the mikvah was beautifully tiled and had the latest in salon equipment. Also, unlike many fervently Orthodox Rebbis, he counseled both men and women, and never refused to shake a woman’s extended hand.
On Simhat Torah, the festival marking the completion of the annual reading of the Torah, the entire Jewish community of Boston, Jews of every denomination, would crowd into his synagogue to rejoice. The mechitza would be pushed aside, and even women were permitted to hold the Torah (or course, the men and women danced separately).
Over the years, as many others took up the cause of kiruv (outreach) Rabbi Horowitz saw another unfilled need - expert medical care, especially for the indigent. He founded ROFEH International and became expert in medical issues, and especially, learning who could best treat which difficult medical condition. Once again, his home was turned into a hotel, with the seriously ill travelling from afar (many from abroad) and living (often with their families) in his home for weeks or months, while he arranged for them to get the best medical care from Boston’s famous medical facilities, cajoling and begging leading doctors to waive their fees, and raising funds to pay for unwaivable costs.
Despite his substantial accommodation to the modern world, and quietly pushing the envelope, Rabbi Horowitz avoided controversy and was widely respected in traditional Orthodox circles. He was a member of the presidium of Mo’etzet Gedolai HaTorah, ("Council of Great Torah Sages").
A humble man, he would often call me years after I had moved out of Boston and say, “this is Levi Yitzhak. How is the family? How are you doing?
When my late brother-in-law  Aharon was killed in action in the North of Israel, he travelled specially from Jerusalem, traveling for over an hour, to pay his respects.
May his memory be for a blessing.
David E. Y. Sarna
(Guest Blogger)

8 comments:

Jeffrey Woolf said...

Beautifully expressed. The Rebbe was a major part of Jewish Life in the years I grew up, and larger than life in his achievements.

חבל על דאבדין

DG said...

I am the Rebbe's chasid since February 1962. The Rebbe zatzal never shook a woman's hand. For shame to say such a thing!

Dovid Gottlieb
Jerusalem

Mayer said...

Very beautiful.

I dont want to sound too critical but there are several points that you made that arent really factual.

To second Rabbi Gottlieb, the Rebbe would have never shaken a womans hand. As a matter of fact there is a famous story where the Rebbe went to see JFK while he was still an offical in Massachusetts and was worried if and when his wife Jackie would show up what would he do to avoid the handshake. Boruch Hashem she never came to the meeting and the issue was avoided.

Another point that you mentioned regarding women holding the Torah. I have davened at the Rebbe's shul for over 30 years and my parents even longer. No women had ever held a Sefer Torah on Simchas Torah or at any other time during the year. The mechitza was pushed aside but men and women were still very much seperated and if the women did want to dance, it was done out of the view of the men.

Regarding the Mikva. I do not want to get into the halachos of Mikvaos nor am my particularly versed in them. However, every mikva has two pools. One that holds actual rainwater called a Bor and one that holds regular tap water and there is a small hole between them allowing the waters to mix and according to Halachah giving the pool with tap water the status of rain water. A person enters the pool that is filled with tap water which is kept clean and as void of bacteria as possible.

Respectfully,

Mayer Krochmal

Noam Shapiro said...

Thank you for your heartfelt words. I was fascinated by your report that the Rebbe marched with MLK. Though R. Heschel's participation at Selma is well known, I have never before heard the same about the Bostoner Rebbe. Is there any other documentation of that?
Thanks again,
Noam Shapiro

David E. Y. Sarna said...

With all due respect to Rabbi Dr. Dale (Dovid) Gotlieb, the Bostoner Rebbi A"H shook hands with my wife, Dr. Rachel Sarna, whenever he saw her. There are also many, many rabbinic authorities who permit this, so it is not an issue. See Michael J. Broyde - Hair Covering & Jewish Law - Biblical and Objective (Dat Moshe) or Rabbinic and Subjective in the latest edition of Tradition for sources.

David E. Y. Sarna said...

Mayer Krochmal is correct as respects the women and men dancing separately,as noted. He is also correct that all modern mikvaot are built of two chambers. Nevertheless, the Rebbi's mikvah was designed by engineers at MIT to ensure that for all practcical purposes each woman had her mikvah water. The Rebbi personally explained the technology to me.

David E. Y. Sarna said...

Noam Shapiro asks if anyone documented the Rebbi's trip to Selma with the Rev King, whom he knew from King's days at Boston University. I don't know. In his typical humble way, he did it because it was the right thing to do and did not seek any publicity. It's a fact nonetheless.

IZZY said...

I agree that this was well written. However, as someone who goes back with the Rebbe zt"l over 50 years, I cannot believe he shook a woman's hand. Perhaps it was the Rebbitzen a"h who shook the woman's hand. I also never heard of the Rebbe marching with Dr. King in Alabama. Hard to believe it was such a well-kept secret.