The Queen Mary cut her way through the waters of the Atlantic, hardly using her potential speed of over 28 knots. The great steamship that had made her maiden voyage just over a year ago was the finest ship in existence. Her parlor suites far surpassed the splendor and comfort of the finest of hotels. Her first-class section was the ultimate in luxury, and even her third-class section was very comfortable.
The year was 1937. Who could have imagined that in just over two years’ time, the 2,000 portholes would be blackened by the crew members hours before war was declared? Who would imagine that the magnificent Queen Mary would soon serve as a troopship, her capacity leaping from 1,997 passengers and 1,174 crew to 9,880 troops and 875 crew, more than 10,000 people?
In 1937, who would have believed this? True, there were rumors of war and of a sadistic despot in Germany, and of bitter and violent anti-Semitism. True, many people, especially Jews, were trying to leave Europe at any cost. But the horrific reality of what was to happen was not yet felt or even thought of.
The ship sailed with her passengers from New York to Southampton, England, for its five-day journey.
Two young men, or rather teenagers, were conspicuous among the passengers. Initially, it was their long peyos (sidelocks that hung down their cheeks) and Hassidic garb that struck the other passengers. Later, it was their difference in behavior and the time they spent in prayer. They were en route to their Rebbe-the previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson, in Otwotsk, Poland-to study in Yeshiva. As the journey progressed, their enthusiasm increased.
One of these boys was Berel Levy. Though only 15 years old, he already had a deep commitment to Torah study and an intensity in prayer that permeated his whole being. In fact, as he himself records in 1970, writing about these times, these prayers became more enthusiastic and lengthier as the ship drew nearer to the shores of England. He notes of this time: “That great country aroused not a flicker of interest in me. As far as I was concerned, it was a minor stopover on the major road to Otwotsk.”
Berel had spent the last few years with his uncle, an extremely devout and brilliant man known as Reb Avrohom Ber, the Malach (the Angel). The Malach was known for not compromising one iota of what was right and true according to the Torah. Berel had imbibed that spirit, and his clear brown eyes showed a depth and intensity far beyond his years.
There were many Jews on the ship, among them prominent community and Zionist leaders en route to the World Zionist Congress in Europe. As time went on, they engaged the two boys in conversation. One of these people, the editor of one of the largest Jewish newspapers in New York, one day boasted to the boys that it was at least 40 years since he had last put on tefillin.
The boys reacted immediately, telling the editor in utterly sincere but no uncertain terms that such things were not to be boasted about. A prominent religious Zionist leader standing nearby began to scold the boys for their rudeness to the editor. He could scarcely cover up his embarrassment about the insult to his nonreligious colleague.
However the editor had been struck by the pure sincerity of the rebuke. “They are right,” he said. “They are truly religious Jews. They should speak as they did to those who willfully disobey the commandments, rather than flatter us as you and your friends do.”
The religious Zionist leader was overwhelmed with a different kind of embarrassment, and he quietly moved on.
The editor had appreciated the directness, sincerity, and uncompromising stance of Berel Levy and his companion, a stance which Berel was to maintain for his whole lifetime. For decades thereafter, as father of OK Kosher Certification and a leading figure in the world of kosher supervision, his winning personality coupled with an obvious commitment and sincerity would melt the resistance of Jews (religious and secular) and non-Jews alike. His life was dedicated to the spreading of uncompromised, pure, and undiluted Torah law and values.
Ruth Benjamin is a clinical psychologist, university lecturer, and prolific author. She lives in Johannesburg, South Africa.