Almost as soon as the world heard the shocking news of the passing of my dear colleague Rabbi Don Yoel Levy ז”ל, accolades began to pour in. A strong leader, a brilliant talmid chacham, a trailblazer, a philanthropist, an inspired chassid, and a dear family man. They are all true, each one painting but another tiny brushstroke on the canvas of the life of a towering giant of kosher supervision.
I personally knew Rabbi Levy through my two roles in kosher: As Kashrus Administrator the cRc, I saw him at work as the leader of America’s
second-largest hashgacha, whose example taught us all so much. And as executive director of AKO (Association of Kashrus Organizations), of which he was a member of the executive committee, I was privileged to see firsthand how his devotion to truth and integrity in Kashrus has benefitted the entire Jewish world.
Here are some examples of many: As food production has slowly shifted to Asia, Kashrus organizations grappled with how to maintain the same level of hashgacha that we were able to apply in North America, where we could pop in unannounced whenever we wished with relative ease. R’ Don Yoel pushed and inspired the major Kashrus agencies to make the united decision that Asia would be no different and that we would be as careful there as we are in our own backyards.
Another example. In the Kashrus industry, there is a class of foods and ingredients known as Group One, which are not required to be supervised since the consensus is that there is no possibility of non-kosher being found in them. More than once, certain ingredients were not allowed on this list due to R’ Don Yoel’s insistence. With his unique blend of Torah scholarship, scientific knowledge, and fealty to emes, he managed to sway us all. In recent weeks, when COVID-19 first became known, some agencies considered making in-person visits less
frequent and relying more on video surveillance for the time being. Rabbi Levy was insistent that we absolutely do not lower our standards and that we take the approach that Kashrus is essential work. One can say that this was his final gift to the world of Kashrus.
How did such a leader emerge? In a sense, he was the perfect mix of an inspired chassid and a methodical yeshivah man. As a passionate chassid of the Lubavitcher Rebbe זצ”ל, he viewed his work as shlichus, the central drive in his life, which he would never compromise for financial gain or convenience.
At the same time, as a talmid of Philadelphia yeshivah who also learned many years in Eretz Yisroel, he was a Torah scholar of the highest order,
whose well-reasoned halachic decisions guided his every move. He didn’t just follow Torah. He was Torah.
I saw firsthand that he would think nothing of dropping a lucrative contract for the OK if it involved lowering his standards, a value he observed from his father and made his own. It takes true yiras shomayim to turn down easy profits of that size, but for him it was not even a question. His focus and discipline was evident in other areas as well. In his personal life, R’ Don Yoel was extremely self-controlled. As per his doctor’s orders, he was careful about what he ate, exercised every morning, and watched his health.
He approached every conversation and every dilemma like a sugya of Gemara waiting to be unpacked. When you spoke to him, you knew that you were the focus of his attention that he was carefully considering the subject at hand. It was as if nothing else mattered at that moment. During the course of the years, I also observed how his wife, Malka תבלח”ט was part and parcel of his work, an invaluable pilllar and support, as he gave days and nights to being mezakeh Klal Yisrael with kosher food of the highest standards. They were true partners.
Fittingly, R’ Don Yoel’s colleagues have memorialized him in a way that merges his two passions: Torah learning and devotion to Kashrus. All over the world, AKO mashgichim and other kashrus professionals are learning a special syllabus of sugyos relevant to Kashrus, ensuring that his legacy will live on within each of them.
יהי זכרו ברוך
Rabbi Sholem Fishbane is the Kashrus Administrator of the Chicago Rabbinical Council (cRc)