By Rabbi Asher Lopatin, Special to Chicago Jewish News
Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, who died recently, was, for more than 50 years, Rosh HaYeshiva of Chicago’s Telshe Yeshiva, whereas I spent my yeshiva days in Chicago at Yeshivas Brisk: only a mile or two away, but in some ways, different worlds. Yet I do vividly remember that Rav Levin came to a shiur klali (a class at Yeshivas Brisk open to the community) that Rav Ahron Soloveichik gave on Chanukah in 1981. I remember that he engaged with Rav Ahron in a back and forth about a child lighting candles for the household. I was impressed, even as a seventeen year old, how the leader of the much larger Telshe Yeshiva would show such respect to a fellow Rosh HaYeshiva. Little did I know that this gesture of respect would reverberate in my life 30 years later in my own personal encounter with Rav Levin.
When, in 2013, my family decided that we would be moving from Chicago for me to take over Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School in New York, I knew I could not leave Chicago without connecting with the Torah giants of the ultra-Orthodox community in the Windy City. In my 18 years as rabbi of the Modern Orthodox Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation, I had never had serious, long meetings with the great ultra-Orthodox leaders of Chicago, including Rav Levin, who sat on the prestigious Moetzet G’dolei HaTorah (Council of Torah Greats) of the Agudath Israel. Now, because I was going to be the president of a rabbinical school severely castigated time and time again by much of the centrist and ultra-Orthodox world, I wanted to find a way of staying connected, of being an integral part of broader Orthodoxy while still championing the cause of Modern Orthodoxy.
In one meeting with a leader of the Chicago ultra-Orthodox community, I was told that to understand the broadest viewpoint of the leadership of the Chareidi community, the person I really needed to meet with was Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin.
To my surprise, and great joy, Rav Levin welcomed me to his home to meet with him and to hear his thoughts. I did not leave the meeting thinking that Rav Levin approved of anything I was doing or anything my type of Modern Orthodoxy was doing. However, and more importantly, I left the meeting with a sense of warmth and gratitude that Rav Levin generously made it such a pleasant and deep encounter. I felt respected and loved, and I felt a strong sense of connection to this great man.
It did help that we spent some time talking about his growing up in Detroit, where my wife Rachel is from, and that his father, Rav Eliezer Levin, was a prominent rav in Detroit. Immediately after my meeting, I checked with Rachel’s father, and he confirmed that Rav Eliezer (“Leizer”) Levin, had officiated at the weddings of Rachel’s grandparents and parents. I remember I got so excited about this, that when I saw Rav Levin in the street a few days later, I said, yes, his father had married my in-laws and my mother-in-law’s parents. Rav Levin graciously smiled both at my enthusiasm and at the memory of the influence his father had on Detroit.
So the most profound substance of my meeting in the Rosh Yeshiva’s house was Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin himself. He was the inspiration that has enabled me to never give up on the bond that can connect Jews, and Orthodox Jews, together. We don’t have to agree on approaches and rulings, but we can have meetings like the one Rav Levin was kind enough to allow me before heading off for New York.
So many will remember Rav Levin for his greatness in Torah learning and for his kind leadership in the Jewish world. I will remember him for giving me hope and confidence that we can come together, we can feel the connection to each other, and that our differences need never pull us apart as a people or as lovers of Torah.
May the memory of HaRav Avrohom Chaim Levin be a blessing for us all.
Rabbi Asher Lopatin served for 18 years as rabbi of Chicago’s Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation. He is currently the rabbi of a new Modern Orthodox shul, Kehillat Etz Chaim of Detroit, and the Director of the Detroit National Center for Civil Discourse.