Rabbi Berel Levy
The father of reliable kosher supervision, learn more about the life of OK pioneer Rabbi Berel Levy
By Rabbi Don Yoel Levy
Rabbi Berel Levy, o.b.m., was a man who accomplished much in his lifetime. In order to appreciate his multi-faceted personality, we need an in-depth look at his upbringing, background and education.
His father, my grandfather, was a fine man, always prepared to help someone, and was one of the friendliest people I knew. At his funeral (which occurred less than a month before my Bar Mitzvah), the cars stretched out in what seemed to be one endless line. His mother was a very leibedike (lively) person, very jolly; nothing ever bothered her. She was very alert, very vivacious and outgoing. His grandfather Berel, after whom my father was named, was an extremely zealous and kindhearted Jew.
Growing up in America in the 1920's, outside of New York City, was not conducive for someone wishing to be an observant Jew. Consequently, at the age of ten, a young Berel decided to leave home and move in with his uncle. The move enabled him to attend the Yeshiva Torah V’Daas. The subway ride to Torah V'Daas was over an hour and Rabbi Weiler, a Torah V'Daas teacher, would accompany my father and learn with him each way.
Berel Levy's uncle, Avrohom Ber Levine, was known as "the Angel". He was recognized as an extremely devout and brilliant person. In those years, assimilation was becoming a real problem for the Jewish community. Thus, Rabbi Mendelovitz, the principal of Torah V'Daas, asked Rabbi Levine to teach Chassidus to some of the older students. He included his nephew, young Berel, among his students. Rabbi Levine had a strong influence on these students and many of them refused to continue their public high school education. Rabbi Levine was a man of impeccable habits. His desire to do the correct thing, no matter what others would say or do, deeply affected my father at that time and for the rest of his life. There were times in those years that my father, having no other place to sleep, would spend nights on a bench in the shul.
Even without much previous religious training, my father utilized his prodigious capabilities to their fullest to become an outstanding student. When he was sixteen, his uncle passed away. My father's spiritual guide, Rabbi Yisroel Jacobson, gave him constant guidance and, at his suggestion, my father decided to leave Torah V'Daas to go to the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in Otwock, Poland. He received no money from his parents and raised the money for the journey himself.
He arrived in Otwock in 1937 and spent two years there studying with great diligence. While there, Rabbi Velvel Solovetchik of Brisk befriended him. My father's two years in Otwock had a profound influence on him: he always spoke in wonder of the Rosh Yeshiva (Head of the Yeshiva), the mashpiim (spiritual guides), the overwhelming chassidishkeit (chassidic energy), and the high standard of learning there. Most significant of all was his accessibility to the 6th Lubavitcher Rebbe, the Rebbe Rayatz and the fact that he was able to go into private audience with him.
Among the many memories my father shared with me about Otwock was the strong impression his roommate, Rabbi Mendel Tennenbaum, made on him. Aside from being a brilliant student, Rabbi Tennenbaum would wait until all his roommates were sleeping and then say Kriyas Shema (prayer before bed) with such devotion that tears would stream down his face.
My father stayed in Otwock until WWII broke out in 1939. Otwock was one of the first places the Nazis bombed, dropping their first bombs there on Friday afternoon, September 1st. At first, the students were not certain what had happened, until they saw the craters in the ground outside and heard the sounds of people fleeing in confusion. There was a Jewish orphanage across the street, which was bombed as my father watched in horror from the yeshiva porch. Just a teenager, the sight of arms and legs flying remained indelibly imprinted on his mind. The Rebbe Rayatz, zt"l, told the students to go to Riga, Latvia and wait for him there for further instructions. The American consul in Warsaw refused them admittance. They eventually arrived in Riga after constant hardships and could not wait for the Frierdike Rebbe, as all the borders were blocked. From there they went to Sweden and Norway, and boarded a freighter to America. Through a series of miracles, my father managed to escape the war and return to America. In 1940, he was among the first students who sat down to learn in the Lubavitcher Yeshiva in 770.
Deemed a rebel by his parents, he received no support from his family at all, which was one of the main catalysts for his becoming a totally self-made man. He would spend his days learning in the yeshiva at 770, but at night, in the bitter cold winter of 1940, he would sleep in a small rented room. With little money for food or warm clothes, he ended up twice in the hospital with pneumonia. Before the advent of penicillin, pneumonia was a dangerous and life-threatening illness. The treatment in those years was sulfa drugs. The problem was when they gave him sulfa drugs, they had a harsh side effect on him and he stopped walking. But stopping the drugs was not an option, so thank G-d he recovered and continued learning in 770.
In 1944, the Frierdike Rebbe had sent Rabbi Mordechai Altein to precede my father in New Haven, CT, as my father had yet to be married to his kallah, Thelma Horowitz. Their purpose was to help found a yeshiva. Rabbi Altein did the preliminaries and made contacts in the community. Within a month, Rabbi Berel Levy had arrived as an emissary of the Rebbe Rayatz with his young wife and worked tirelessly establishing the day yeshiva, after which time Rabbi Altein left almost immediately. My sister and I were born in New Haven, and we remained there for several years.
From New Haven, we moved to Lakewood, NJ where my father worked in the day school for three years. There he met Rabbi Aaron Kotler, o.b.m., with whom he would work closely in later years. After Lakewood, we moved to Elizabeth, NJ, where we lived for seven years. The environment in Elizabeth was not very religious. Most of my classmates were not observant Jews, yet my father instilled in us an extremely strong religious foundation. Later, when my sister and I went to fully religious schools, we blended in naturally due to the strength of the foundation our parents had bestowed upon us. Supporting his wife and two small children, my father was on his own all through these years, with no support of any kind from his parents. His strong personality and perseverance kept him going against all odds.
Leaving Elizabeth for Brooklyn in 1960, he went to work for Torah U'Mesorah. At that time, he was closely associated with the Gedolim (great personalities) of various factions in Orthodox Jewry. His Rebbe, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, used to speak to him for hours concerning educational issues in America. He served as an unofficial conduit between the Rebbe and Rabbi Aaron Kotler and other Litvishe Gedolim. He once spent an entire night discussing Torah U'Mesorah with the previous Satmar Rebbe.
A staunch Lubavitcher Chassid, my father thought it no contradiction to respect and associate with Gedolim holding different opinions. On this point, he also met and started a long relationship with the famous Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, zt"l.
In the mid-1960's, he started working in the field of kosher. At that time, certification was given with very little technical knowledge of the food industry. Often people just assumed things were kosher judging by the ingredients on the label. My father took over some hechsherim in 1965. He started out with eleven or twelve hechsherim, and because of his personality and drive, companies kept coming to him applying for certification. He took over OK Kosher Certification in 1968. Until that time, no one had ever bothered traveling to check ingredients and products coming from overseas. Being a real pioneer in the kosher industry, Rabbi Berel Levy always wanted to see how everything was produced. He would check as far back as he could, finding that each ingredient was made up of many ingredients until eventually he saw the need to certify the plants. And so, one thing led to another and international travel for kosher certification became a necessity.
Against great odds, he pioneered giving certifications, only after totally familiarizing himself with all the mechanical and chemical components of the food industry. People who knew him from this period of time, told me with wonder how he was the first to question the validity of generally accepted ingredients. He was the first one to make extensive trips to the Far East to inspect the products coming from there. Even countries not particularly friendly to Jewish people, didn't faze him. He was the first to visit Malaysia. Incidentally, Rabbi Levy did not really encounter any anti-Semitism on his trips. People respected what he was trying to accomplish. Often on his trips, the Rebbe would ask him to perform a particular task in a foreign country he would be in. He always made certain to carry out every detail of the Rebbe's mission. A mikveh was built in the Philippines, a mechitzah was raised in the shul of Kobe, Japan. He accomplished much more than kosher certification in his travels. The OK was the first to begin certifying companies in the Far East, starting with palm oils and chemicals. Today in Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, Korea, Japan and China the OK is the primary kosher organization in that part of the world.
Rabbi Berry Levy was a strong, yet kind man. He had a tremendous impact on my life. He was dynamic and fearless and was able to reach many unreachable people in various remote places. One humorous story I remember about his travels occurred in Tashkent, Russia before the fall of the dreaded Iron Curtain. The KGB used to follow him like a shadow wherever he went. It once happened that he was unable to procure a taxi. He turned towards the stern-faced KGB agent following him and said, "You must be going where I am going anyway. Can you please give me a ride"?
Making sure products were unquestionably kosher through thorough examination was his way. We continue in his footsteps pioneering developments in kosher. Due to our efforts at the OK Kosher Certification, we have, thank G-d, seen changes in the ingredient field. No longer is the kosher status of certain ingredients taken for granted. Fermentation products such as citric acid, MSG and ascorbic acid are no longer considered inherently kosher. The OK was the first kosher organization to set up a kosher system in the port of Rotterdam, a project initiated by my father and implemented after his untimely death of a heart attack on Shabbos, 5 Nissan, 15 years ago.
He noticed the problem of boats or iso-tankers transporting products. The transports needed to be regulated, as sometimes the tankers would also carry lard, tallow, non-kosher refined glycerin or fatty acids, refined glycerin, wine or non-kosher alcohol. Rabbi Levy introduced a system for monitoring these tankers, which the OK continues to enhance to this day.
Following in my father's footsteps in familiarizing ourselves with the intricacies of food production, we have in the last few years published many extensive and profound articles on the detailed process of kosher procedures.
Rabbi Berel Levy, o.b.m., is survived by his wife - still actively involved in the OK - myself, my sister and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren who miss him dearly.
Our sages tell us that one of the merits that enabled the Jews in Egypt to be redeemed is that they did not change their way of keeping kosher. Like their exit from Egypt, may we, with G-d's help, merit the final Redemption with the imminent coming of Moshiach.