Balabusta of the Century

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The miracle of Chanukah was accomplished in part by a Jewish woman, Yehudis, who used food and drink to lull the general to sleep and slay him, ensuring the continuity of the Jewish people. Today, too, there are many Jewish women who are helping to continue the prosperity and longevity of the Yidden through kosher food. Mrs. Thelma Levy, wife of Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m, is one of these righteous women.

On a quiet Sunday morning earlier this year, a large group of family gathered for a festive celebration marking the 90th birthday of Thelma Levy, wife of Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m. This group knew well the greatness of the birthday girl. A remarkable mother, grandmother, and great grandmother of 70+, and recently a great-great-grandmother too, and the devoted wife and life partner of Rabbi Berel Levy, ob”m, who was one of the most important figures in modern kashrus history.

But there is one chapter in the story of Thelma Levy that she does not often speak of. It is a story worth telling…

At the behest of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Berel Levy made seven trips to the former USSR during the 1960s – 1970s. On five occasions, his wife, Thelma, accompanied him. On three occasions, their son, Eliezer Yitzhok, ob”m, accompanied them. On these trips the Levys risked arrest by bringing along spiritual essentials to the Jews of Russia. They would offer much needed chizzuk and inspiration to their Jewish brothers and sisters. Rabbi Berel and Thelma would gather information, often in the form of video interviews with various Refuseniks, which they’d bring back to the Lubavitcher Rebbe, along with detailed reports. On two occasions, the Russian authorities arrested and later released Rabbi Levy for having religious articles on his person.

There was a ritual that surrounded these trips. In advance, the Levys would meet with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, who would issue guidance. In the aftermath, they would return to the Rebbe for a thorough debriefing. Following their time with the Rebbe, they would experience a great treat… a visit with the Lubavitcher Rebbetzin, in her home, to watch the videos taken in the USSR and spend time in conversation. The Lubavitcher Rebbetzin was a very private person and rarely met with community members, Rabbi Berel and Thelma were amongst the very few who were privileged to spend quality time with her. They greatly looked forward to their time with her, and she was gracious and warm and very interested in hearing about their travels in detail. Once, when a post-trip encounter with the Rebbe was taking a long time, stretching until 2 AM, the Rebbetzin, who was looking forward to her time with the Levys, called into the Rebbe’s office to ask what was taking so long.

Before one of their trips to Russia, the Levys were preparing their bags and special items to bring into the country and the lucky few who knew of their plans clamored to help. Everyone wanted to help by sharing gifts of soul and hope. A man named Rabbi Chudaitov insisted on sending many mezuzos and seforim. The Levys did their best to disperse these as subtly as possible throughout their luggage. Aaron Rubashkin, owner of Rubashkin Meats, dropped off 10 large salamis. There was no known method for concealing 10 large salamis, so Thelma packed them into her handbag. The Rebbe gave the Levys $3,000 to convert to rubles and distribute to those in need.

On a previous trip, Thelma had discussed Taharas HaMishpocha with women in Russia and they had expresses interest in wearing shaitels. At the time there was no such thing as a shaitel in Russia. On a subsequent visit Thelma managed to smuggle five brand new shaitels to Jewish women in Russia. She was transporting them on this trip.

Upon landing, they encountered their customs agent, a tough, humorless woman. She asked if they were carrying any cash; Thelma produced the envelope. The woman took the envelope and began to walk away. “Where are you going?” Thelma asked. The agent explained she was going to another room to count the money. “You’ll count it right here!” Thelma exclaimed. The woman complied, and actually returned the envelope without opening it.

But their suitcases were not so lucky. They were turned upside down and inside out. Clothing and personal belongings were strewn all over the floor. Most of the kosher food was confiscated and many of the mezuzos and seforim met a similar fate. The agent spotted a shaitel box and was about to open it. “I’ll have you know I paid $50 to have that set,” Thelma interjected, “and if you mess it up you will have to pay for it.” The agent left the box alone.

Her task complete, down to removing the soles from one of Thelma’s shoes, the agent instructed Thelma to clean up the mess. Having the mezuzos, seforim and kosher food confiscated was quite traumatic, to say the least, and the Levys’ frustration was palpable. Nothing could prepare the agent for what came next. “I packed once,” Thelma said, “you made this mess, you scattered everything, you will repack my suitcases, neatly.” The agent was outraged and started to shout at Thelma, threatening to call the ‘Politzeh’. “Please call my American ambassador,” Thelma asserted, nonplussed, “and bring the police with them. I’d like to ask who is responsible for packing this all up.” The agent repacked the suitcases, neatly.

To stand up to the Russian authorities, one had to be exceptionally strong, especially in the USSR when even the most minor infraction could land you in jail. Thelma Levy knew that she would need to marshal every bit of toughness she possessed to succeed in carrying out her mission. She would not be pushed around.

From where did this All American Girl, Thelma Levy, born in the Bronx in 1924, summon the courage to confront the fearsome Soviet authorities? How did she manage to make her profound mesiras nefesh, placing herself and her family in danger in order to bring aid to her fellow Jews, and make it appear so effortless, as though no big deal? In what merit did she have the boundless privilege and pleasure of spending countless hours in the presence of the Lubavitcher Rebbe and Rebbetzin? I cannot answer these questions. I can only report on her real life actions.

Today, at 90, Thelma Levy is as lucid and sharp as she was at 19.

Asked what it was like to be married to Rabbi Berel Levy, she says, “Amazing!” and goes on to add, “Great, great, great!” She explains that she did her best to support his life work “in every which way.”

Asked what OK Kosher Certification represents to her, she says a kosher agency “that does everything without departing from the straight and narrow. Its real kashrus without compromise .”

And of her son, Rabbi Don Yoel Levy, who today heads the international kosher agency her husband brought to prominence, she states warmly, “We are in the right hands, he is doing a magnificent job!”

In January of 1969, OK Kosher Certification introduced an innovative new publication to the Jewish world. Titled “The Jewish Homemaker”, it represented the first ever Jewish magazine focused solely on the Jewish woman, who, the inaugural editorial declared, “we feel is the mainstay of our heritage and traditions.”

The magazine had a feature called “Balabusta of the Month”, which was awarded in each issue to a great Jewish woman, one who managed to get it all done while making it look easy.

Well, we’d like to take this opportunity to award Thelma Levy the title of “Balabusta of the Century.” It can be said that her excellence as a Jewish Homemaker served as the perfect cover for her exemplary secret service of her people. May she be blessed with long life and continued health, nachas and prosperity.