Mrs. Thelma Levy, matriarch of OK Kosher, passed away in mid-March. She was 95. An accomplished teacher, administrator, mother, grandmother and great-grandmother, Mrs. Levy lived with purpose and passion, devoting herself to her family and to the promotion of kosher observance for over five decades.
In the 1970s and 80s, when OK Kosher Laboratories was becoming a household name, it’s director, Rabbi Berel “Bernard” Levy was the public
face of the organization. Building the largest private supervision agency in the world certainly required his courage and foresight, but it was Mrs.
Levy’s practical know-how that kept it running on a daily basis, say those who knew her.
“There would have been no OK if not for Mrs. Levy,” says Rabbi Menachem Hacohen, former member of the Knesset, Chief Rabbi of Romania, and family friend, “She kept everything together. She made sure that bills could be paid, rabbis would receive their salaries, and they could continue to grow.”
Tamar Malka “Thelma” Horowitz was born in 1924 to her parents, Yitzchak and Sarah. “We were very poor,” she said in 2016, “but we didn’t know what ‘poor’ means. We thought everything was just so. There was no such thing as going places, doing things. There were no cars. Playing was out in the street. We played tag, ball. We had a broomstick for a bat.”
Mrs. Levy recalled how she learned to be respectful of her elders: She once came home from school and started to speak in a derogatory way about a teacher. “I didn’t get very far.” Her mother gave her stern look, ending the conversation by saying, “The teacher is gerecht [right].”
She vividly remembered the sacrifices her mother made so that her children could get a Jewish education. At first, they studied Alef-Beis after school at a shul across the street from their home, where she and her older sister were the only girls in the class. When they got older, her mother enrolled all the girls in Congregation Kehilath Israel’s afternoon Talmud Torah Hebrew school.
The shul was a fifteen-minute walk from the Horowitzes’ home. Thus, her mother spent every afternoon walking her children back and forth to the
school. “We were three girls of three ages,” Mrs. Levy said, “so of course we had to go to three different classes.”
Julia, the youngest sister, went first, at four o’clock. By the time Mrs. Horowitz returned, she would have only a few minutes to rest before she had to take Thelma and pick up Julia. Leaving Julia at home, she would walk the oldest daughter to her class, which began at six; pick up Thelma and deposit her at home; and return one final time to pick up Regina, arriving home around 7:15 in the evening.
Girls’ education was not a priority for most parents at the time, and her efforts sometimes drew criticism. “Mrs. Horowitz, you have no boys,” a neighbor once said to her. “Why do you run back and forth, back and forth, three times a day to bring your girls?”
“I am not asking by you,” Thelma’s mother replied.
BOOKKEEPER TO TEACHER
When she completed high school, she took a course to become a typist and bookkeeper and went to work for a law firm run by three brothers.
At the age of twenty, she was introduced to Berel Levy. After the young man completed his studies at the Chabad yeshivah and receiving rabbinic
ordination, he got a job teaching at the Lubavitch grade school on Bedford and Dean Streets.
“I never heard the word ‘Lubavitch’ before I met Berel,” Mrs. Levy said. After their first date, however, she could see that they shared a deep commitment to Judaism, the most important quality she sought in a husband. Late in 1944, they decided to get married.
There was another trait, Mrs. Levy said, that Berel had, which captured her heart. Several times before the wedding he came to the Horowitz home for Shabbos. One Friday he arrived without a change of clothing for the next day. “Did you lose it?” Thelma asked.
No, he told her. He had a cousin, living on the East Side who was emotionally disturbed. “I met him, and he didn’t have what to wear,” he said. “I gave him my clothes. Let him enjoy them for Shabbos.”
I interviewed Mrs. Levy extensively while I was writing Kosher Investigator: How Rabbi Berel Levy Built the OK and Transformed the World of Kosher Supervision. Mrs. Levy spoke little about her husband’s charitable work at the time. But when I brought her the published book, she said she wanted to tell me something that Rabbi Levy, whom she referred to as “Zaidy,” would not have wanted made public.
“Zaidy did the best [to help another] whenever he had the opportunity,” she said. “Anybody who rang his bell went out full. That is the way it was. He never had a bank account. He used to say to me, ‘How much money do you need a week?’ I gave the amount, which he would give me, and the rest of the money he earned went to tzedakah. There was no account when he was niftar. It never bothered me. I had what I wanted.”
Only when they were already engaged did Berel take his fiancée to meet the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, in Crown Heights. There, she got a taste of what life as a Chabad chassid would be. Lubavitchers were devoted to Torah study and personal refinement, but they were also known for their efforts to educate secular Jews about their heritage, a mission they often pursued to the point of self-sacrifice.
In 1944, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok had established a Lubavitch school in New Haven, Connecticut. The consensus at the time was that a Jewish school was not viable in New Haven, a previous attempt at starting one having been unsuccessful. But Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok felt that abandoning the community was not an option, and that, with the right leadership, the school would be a success.
In a private audience, during the future Mrs. Levy’s first visit to Chabad headquarters, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok asked Rabbi Levy to lead the school. The Rebbe discussed what he saw the school accomplishing and how it should be done. He had a clear vision, and Rabbi Levy was to follow the guidelines.
Then, the Rebbe, who did not speak clearly because of an illness, turned to Thelma and said that she would also teach at the new girls’ school. Her face turned white.
“I felt like someone shot me,” Mrs. Levy recalled. “I was trained to be a bookkeeper. I didn’t know how to go into the classroom and say good morning to the children.”
Thelma heard nothing else during the audience. Outside of the Rebbe’s office, all she could say was “I don’t know what I am going to do.”
“Don’t worry,” her fiancée told her, “I will guide you in your teaching.”
The young bride quickly realized that joining her husband in Lubavitch would mean developing the mindset of a soldier. After that, she said, “I was ready to accept and never complained.”
While others did the preliminaries and made contacts for them in the community, after their marriage, the Levys moved straight to New Haven. It was summertime, but they began the school immediately with four children in the dining room of a private home.
The school grew, and soon there was an active girls’ school as well, where, as the Rebbe had asked, Mrs. Levy taught. New Haven resident Micky Epstein recalled the Levys’ arrival in the community. “They were very good people.” Before they came, she said, there was no one in the city she felt she could look up to and learn from as a Jewish role model, “but they were really wonderful. It was so nice having them in New Haven. I still think about the Levys and the impression they made on me.”
After years of teaching in New Haven, and later in Elizabeth, New Jersey, the Levys took on a new mission: kosher. For Rabbi Levy, this was not just a business. Bringing kosher supervision to a new, higher standard became the rallying call of his life, as I describe at length in Kosher Investigator. Mrs. Levy played an essential role in this work, including running the office, which was in their home for many years, and supervising the field mashgichim.
In 2016, when I began to work on Kosher Investigator, Mrs. Levy was 92. Her husband had passed away in 1986, tragically, at the age of 65. It was still difficult for her to describe the moment she learned of his death. “At the time I couldn’t talk, I couldn’t say anything. I was ready to fall down, but they held me up. It was not easy, it was not easy.”
Even all those years later, she missed him painfully. “We were not even married fifty years,” she told me.
During the shiva, it was suggested that she sell the OK. She was greatly relieved to learn that her son Rabbi Don Yoel “had no intention of doing that.”
For her, the defining quality of the OK was the dedication of the employees and their work ethic. Her son had continued in her husband’s footsteps, she said. “Don Yoel works day and night. [He] made it a beautiful organization. We have mashgichim all over the world.”
I asked her what her life philosophy was. “I try the best to do what the Aibeshter wants me to do,” she said. “You don’t know what it is. You have to try.” The strong values her parents instilled were still on visible display. “I don’t like dishonest people,” she told me. “Dishonesty is a terrible thing.”
At the time, she was using a walker after a fall, which had forced her to stop working at the OK offices. But her mind was crisp, her memory phenomenal. At first, I took everything she said with a grain of salt, as she was describing events that happened decades earlier. However, when her granddaughter Devorah Leah Chein discovered many documents and correspondence of both Mrs. Levy and her husband, I was amazed to find that everything she said was accurate. The stories she told me from the Soviet Union were almost word for word the way she wrote them to her daughter immediately after they transpired.
She spoke to me seated at a large table covered with piles of seforim – including some penned by her grandchildren – and framed photos and photo books of her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. Her family were her diamonds, she told me. “I have four great, great children.”
Filled with purpose to the last, she said, “I am now shepping nachas. That is my aim in life now.”
Dovid Zaklikowski is a researcher, lecturer, and biographer. He is the author of Kosher Investigator and the Advice for Life series, among other titles. He lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Chana Raizel, and their five children, Motti, Meir, Shaina, Benny, and Mendel. His books are available on HasidicArchives.com and Amazon. Dovid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.