REMEMBRANCES: Grand Rabbi Levi Yitzchak Horowitz (1921 - 2009)
The Bostoner Rebbe – A Quiet Revolutionary
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.
I 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 se’ah (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