| Magazine Feature |

Divine Dividends

Rabbi Yehuda Levin’s life was replete with vast prosperity, but also challenging setbacks. There were times of youthful vitality, but also times of physical debilitation. Yet he left us with timeless lessons in how to smile through it all: fervently clinging to limud haTorah, living modestly despite a burgeoning bank account, never raising the communal bar, and genuinely loving, caring for, and supporting others with whatever means each of us has been gifted

Photos: Family archives

It was late at night,and Rabbi Yehuda Levin was just coming home after a vigorous seder with his chavrusa. Upon entering the house, he overheard his wife on the phone with a close friend.

“What can I tell you — the salary they pay is just not working for me,” the voice on the speaker phone was confiding to Mrs. Chaya Levin. “Look, I’m not blaming the school — it’s hard to raise a teacher’s salary. But you would think that after all these years of giving it my all, I would be able to actually cover my expenses….” The conversation continued, but Reb Yehuda had heard enough.

Before long, Reb Yehuda was on the phone with the school’s administrator. “Double her salary,” he instructed. “Don’t worry — I’ll make sure to cover the difference, whatever it is.”

This arrangement went on for years, the teacher never discovering the secret behind the school’s sudden plenitude of funds and Reb Yehuda never receiving any credit for his largesse — but that was exactly how he wanted it. Because to Rabbi Yehuda Levin, it was never about the applause, the accolades, or even the simple thank-you; it was about enabling another Yid to live with dignity and peace of mind.

It’s quite an undertaking to write an article about this incredible, multifaceted individual, who passed away after years of health challenges on 9 Adar II (March 19). He was a stalwart kollel yungerman and talmid chacham, but also a magnanimous philanthropist like no other; he endured various forms of adversity, but was simultaneously one of the happiest and most empowering people around; he was the successful CEO of a multimillion dollar company, yet he lived a life of such simplicity and dedication to Torah values that some of his young children were totally unaware of his wealth; he cared intensely for others and fought for their success and serenity, yet never allowed himself as much as a building name, a plaque, or even a photo in the paper if he could help it.

Across the Ocean

Yehuda Levin was born on 23 Adar 5709 (March 1949) in the Haifa suburb of Kiryat Chaim. His father, Rav Moshe Levin, was a talmid of the Mirrer Yeshivah who had immigrated to Eretz Yisrael in the mid-1930s and eventually became the rav of the small municipality. In 1952, when Yehuda was just three years old, his family moved to Netanya, where Rav Levin was appointed as head of the city’s religious council and later as Netanya’s chief rabbi (today there is a street named after him). Yehuda and his two brothers attended the local Bnei Akiva school, the only religious school network at the time, relying heavily on their parents’ strong mesorah and chinuch.

Rav Moshe Levin was the right person to transmit untarnished Torah values to the next generation. He was a paragon of the extreme dedication to limud haTorah and yiras Shamayim of prewar Europe. His children would later relate that they never saw their father sleep in a bed during the week; he would always be learning and simply doze off at the table in between his learning sedorim. These early influences at home served Yehuda well when, at age 17, he went to study at Beis HaTalmud in Jerusalem, under the tutelage of Rosh Yeshivah Rav Dov Schwartzman. It was there that Yehuda was influenced by some of the greatest maggidei shiur of the last generation, including Rav Moshe Shapira and Rav Binyomin Zilber zichronam livrachah, and Rav Yochanan Zweig, who spent six years as a maggid shiur in Beis HaTalmud before founding a yeshivah in Miami Beach.

How Reb Yehuda ended up in Lakewood was essentially due to his older brother, Rav Eliyahu Levin, one of Lakewood’s foremost talmidei chachamim and rosh kollel of Kollel Choshen Mishpat V’Even Ha’ezer.

In the late 1960s, Rav Eliyahu had been learning under Rav Berel Soloveitchik, toiling through sugyos with the group of American talmidim that were with him in Brisk at that time, and when they headed back to learn in Lakewood, he decided to go along with them. In the summer of 1972, when Rav Eliyahu was getting married, Yehuda came to America for the wedding — and it was on that trip that he met Rav Shneur Kotler, who suggested he try out a zeman in Lakewood. Yehuda heeded the Rosh Yeshivah’s advice — and Lakewood wound up being his hometown for the next five decades. At the age of 27, Yehuda married Chaya Weisman of Queens, New York, becoming a full-time kollel yungerman.

“Living in a new country can be challenging for anybody — but challenges never scared off my father,” says his son Reb Bentzi Levin. “He didn’t speak English — but that didn’t matter. He smiled to his peers, he joked, and he spent some of his spare time leafing through the dictionary. And before long, he had fully acclimated to Lakewood society.”

Booming Business

Sooner than later, though, it seemed as if Reb Yehuda’s stint as a kollel avreich was going to be short-lived. The young couple’s financial situation wasn’t looking good — they barely had a dime to spare. After struggling for some time, Reb Yehuda reached out to Rav Shach and asked him if, given the circumstances, the time had come to go out to work. Rav Shach’s response was rather straightforward: “If this is the situation, then you should go to work.”

Reb Yehuda began looking around for a way to make parnassah, and he soon noticed that he had a knack for finding interesting and innovative items and predicting which ones had potential to become top-sellers. He decided to launch a small mail-order business called New Horizons, sending out catalogues featuring various fresh and eye-catching goods. He eventually expanded his stock to include things like advanced alarm clocks, self-defense mechanisms, and modern cooking paraphernalia. After some initial setbacks, New Horizons was rebranded as Lifestyle Fascination, with catalogs selling electronic items, gadgets, toys, household goods, cosmetics, and various health-related products — and the company took off, beyond his wildest expectations.

By the time Yehuda Levin was in his mid-30s, he’d become a millionaire. Yet he never really left the walls of kollel.

During the first few years, Reb Yehuda was working part-time and learning the rest of the day; but once the company was a success, he went back to two full daily sedorim, leaving most of the work to his staff. He put in some hours at night and early in the morning, but Reb Yehuda’s lifeline was his Torah, and that was where he invested most of his energies.

Rabbi Yossi Wechsler, a noted rosh chaburah in BMG’s Princeton location and son-in-law of the Levins, reflected on this novel phenomenon.

“When I first got engaged,” he says, “I heard that my future shver ran an exceedingly successful business, but I couldn’t wrap my head around it. I never saw him working! He was always in yeshivah. Whenever I saw him interacting with others, he was always discussing interesting sh’eilos in halachah or a new pshat in the Gemara. I never heard him breathe a word about business.

“It wasn’t until my first summer bein hazmanim married into the family that I caught my shver doing some work. We were sleeping in the Levins’ basement, and at around 1 a.m., I heard some shuffling in the office adjacent to our room. I then realized that after a long day of learning and giving to the klal, my shver was finally stopping by to check in on his business.”

Rabbi Baruch Meir Levin relates that he and his siblings often asked their father why he didn’t build himself a private study at home; after all, he loved to learn whenever he had a spare moment. But Reb Yehuda didn’t need a study in his home; yeshivah was his makom kavua.

“Bais Shalom is my study,” he would often reply, referring to the BMG location on Ninth Street that he helped establish by single-handedly supplying the down payment. Indeed, Bais Shalom had a special place in his heart; Reb Yehuda famously sat in the back-left corner of the beis medrash for years, available to all who needed a warm smile, a geshmake vort, or monetary assistance.

Reb Yehuda once chanced upon an old friend from his bochur years. “Yehuda! What do you do these days?” the man asked, clearly oblivious to his old friend’s great prosperity.

“I’m learning in kollel,” came the simple, unpretentious reply.

But as they were schmoozing, Reb Yehuda’s cellphone began to ring. This was during the 80s, when cellphones were few and far between, cost thousands of dollars, and were about the size of a blow-dryer. Reb Yehuda took the call somewhat bashfully and quickly answered the questions coming from his secretary.

“I thought you said you were in kollel?” his friend asked after the call finished.

“I am,” Reb Yehuda replied. “I just do some business on the side.” Indeed, that’s how he viewed himself: He was a yeshivahman, first and foremost. Running a business was something that he also did, in his spare time late at night.

Extreme Giver

From the moment Reb Yehuda started making serious money, he routinely gave most of it away. In his eyes, it was a basic formula: Hashem gave him what he needed for his family, and the rest was for those in need. It was that simple.

“My father gave 80 to 90 percent of his income to tzedakah,” says Bentzi Levin. “It may sound implausible, but it’s true. I personally know that one year he made about $4.7 million, and he gave away a whopping $4 million of it. People often asked him if it was advisable to give away more than a chomesh [a fifth] for tzedakah, but he would always say, ‘I spoke with many gedolim, and they gave me heterim.’” Indeed, people from all walks of Jewish life would flock to his front door for donations, and he would never disappoint. On Purim, he would hand out $360 checks to the hundreds of collectors flooding his dining room — even the young children collecting for their schools.

“There’s no question about it: In terms of relative wealth, Yehuda gave more than anybody in the frum community in recent history,” says Rabbi Aaron Kotler, president emeritus of Beth Medrash Govoha and Reb Yehuda’s longtime friend.

Reb Yehuda’s giving nature began at a young age. His mother would often retell that when he was a child in Netanya, one of the most coveted treats to receive from a teacher was a simple orange. When ten-year-old Yehuda once earned this award, he took the orange home — and divided it up for his family members. He similarly used his bar mitzvah money to buy a new watch for his father and a necklace for his mother.

It is well-known that master mechanech Rav Kalman Krohn a”h was heavily involved in tzorchei tzibbur for many years. Rebbetzin Krohn recounted at Reb Yehuda’s shivah how her husband worked hand-in-glove with him for decades to ensure that everyone’s needs were attended to. Whenever Rav Kalman came across a person in dire straits and his tzedakah fund couldn’t sustain the expense, he knew exactly who to call.

“Reb Yehuda always sprang right into action. He would write out large checks without thinking twice,” she said. But he didn’t just give his money; he gave his time and wise counsel. He would spend hours with Rav Kalman, fastidiously dissecting the various communal needs and coming up with unique solutions.

Rebbetzin Krohn also revealed that at one point, her husband questioned Reb Yehuda about his unparalleled benevolence. “Reb Yehuda, maybe you should focus more on putting some money aside for yourself?” he asked.

Yehuda Levin smiled and answered with his trademark Israeli accent: “I have one account that I need to build up. It’s the one in Shamayim,” he said, pointing upward.

No Raising the Bar

Reb Yehuda was indeed careful to save money for his family; it was just that the lifestyle he promoted at home wasn’t one that called for wealth or materialism. He put aside what they needed to live comfortably and pursue their aspirations, but never to live lavishly.

In fact, his lifestyle was practically indistinguishable from his Lakewood neighbors. The house, the clothes — they were all middle-class, no more.

“The only thing he did differently was to buy a slightly newer car,” says Bentzi Levin. “He really didn’t like spending time at the mechanic when he could be learning. But other than that, everything was simple and modest.”

Mrs. Sari (Levin) Weissberger relates that she was in fourth grade when one of her friends told her that her father was a millionaire. “I didn’t believe her,” she says. “There was nothing different about us. How could we be rich?”

One of Reb Yehuda’s primary motivations to live this way was that he was adamant about not raising the bar for what was considered “normal” or “standard” in the small yeshivah town. He spurned the idea of living ostentatiously in an area that was mostly home to kollel yungeleit. Why up the ante for people who can’t afford it? And furthermore — why distract people from the purity and wholesomeness that they desperately craved for themselves and their families?

In fact, when Reb Yehuda had to redo the floors of his home, he insisted on using the cheaper option of linoleum rather than hardwood or marble tiling. Sometime after the floor was completed, a couple was visiting, and the husband took note of the new flooring.

“Look, even Yehuda Levin was willing to go for linoleum flooring!” he told his wife, seemingly attempting to put a lid on an ongoing back-and-forth. Reb Yehuda was thrilled when he heard those words, and often cited this anecdote as testimony that the thoughtful, considerate actions of the more comfortable members of society can subtly lower the standards and ease the burden on those surrounding them.

Along with his simplicity came his distaste for any form of kavod. “He never hung up any of the various plaques that he was awarded,” says Baruch Meir. “There were also times when he would conveniently ‘forget’ the plaque in the hall.”

Reb Baruch Meir shares that on one occasion, his father arrived home on Friday night and saw that one of his family members had hung up a new plaque. Reb Yehuda summarily covered it with a towel and promptly took it down after Shabbos.

“Once, when I was a kid, my father’s face ended up in one of the papers without him knowing,” says Mrs. Weissberger. He would usually implore his various beneficiaries not to make any public mention of his donations, but on this occasion, the homage made its way into the paper. “I ran to him to show him his picture, but he quickly tore it out and discarded it. He always wanted us to understand what was really important in life — not the fame or fortune.”

The Art of Altruism

A noteworthy component of Reb Yehuda’s nonpareil generosity was that it wasn’t just about handing out checks. The driving force behind his kindness was that he genuinely cared about all people; he had a profound desire for them to succeed. This meant that his main goal wasn’t just assisting them to cover their debt or wedding expenses, but to help them out in the long run.

“When my father saw that someone was struggling to hold down a decent job, he would find other ways to grant him a consistent parnassah,” says Mrs. Weissberger. “He would give them an easy job at his warehouse, even if they weren’t too good at that. He would hire plumbers, caterers, or musicians even if they were clearly novices or just incompetent. On his list of priorities, number one was helping to get another Yid’s parnassah on solid footing.”

Mrs. Weissberger shares a striking story that attests to Reb Yehuda’s ungrudging, big-hearted nature. At one point, a certain fellow double-crossed Reb Yehuda in a manner that caused him heavy losses. A short time after that episode, it came to his attention that this fellow’s daughter had not been accepted to a high school.

“During that period, I overheard him talking on the phone with a certain school, literally pleading with them to accept this girl,” she relates. “I couldn’t help myself, but I asked him if he really had to go out of his way for someone who had wronged him so severely. His response? He had a look of total disapproval strewn across his face. It was one of the only times in my life that I felt like he was disappointed with me.”

Bentzi Levin relates that his father would invest large sums with people opening up a new store or restaurant, even if their business sense was a bit shaky. “He didn’t pay any attention to whether these were wise investments; and, indeed, he often lost out on them. But that didn’t matter. All he wanted to do was give another Yid a confidence boost and a leg up.”

Always with Simchah

Reb Yehuda’s most unforgettable characteristic was his boundless simchas hachayim. No matter when, no matter where — he was always smiling, always saying a good word or sharing an interesting vort or sh’eilah. If you would ever ask him how he was doing, he would reply with his signature jocular refrain: “Better than yesterday!”

Reb Yehuda’s immutable cheerfulness was eminently apparent when it came to Torah. Back in the 80s, he was one of the only people in the community with a fax machine — and it was put to good use by being the kollel yungeleit’s direct conduit for sending sh’eilos to Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Reb Yehuda loved pondering each question, thinking of his own suggestions, and finally scrutinizing the answer Rav Chaim would send back. The questions would be on his mind all day, and he would enthusiastically share his insights about them with anybody he would meet.

Rabbi Baruch Manes, longtime administrator of the Lakewood Cheder, focuses on a different aspect of Reb Yehuda’s happiness.

“He loved people,” he shares. “His greatest enjoyment was hearing that another Yid was doing better than before.” And this came along with another honorable attribute: “He would never talk about people. Not good, not bad. There was simply zero talk about others.” Rabbi Manes explains that this was a direct result of his abounding love for others — he saw everyone as pure gold, and he yearned for their success. There was no negativity to be seen in anybody.

It was Reb Yehuda’s love and care that impelled him to upend the status quo for rebbeim in Lakewood.

“Schools weren’t really expected to pay their rebbeim on time back then,” says Rabbi Manes. “But Yehuda wouldn’t stand for it. He pushed us to get the paychecks on time, personally footing the bill when we fell short. And, through his persistence, everything changed, and it is now standard practice to pay rebbeim in a timely fashion across town. It’s all thanks to him.”

Hard Times

Reb Yehuda Levin lived a life of perpetual simchah — even when the going got rough. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it became evident that the rise of the Internet and Amazon would inevitably render companies like Lifestyle Fascination obsolete. Indeed, sales began to decrease, and the prospects of the company’s future were looking bleak.

Reb Yosef Schwartz, a nephew of Reb Yehuda, was present on the memorable day in 2004 that his uncle came to discuss the issue with Rav Chaim Kanievsky. Reb Yehuda asked the gadol if he should try to transfer the company over to the Internet in order to maintain its relevance.

“Mah zeh Internet?” Rav Chaim asked. Reb Yehuda spent the next ten minutes educating the gadol on the basic workings of the Internet. Rav Chaim mulled the matter over for a few minutes, and finally said: “It’s better not to.” He then advised him to put some money away in real estate as an alternate form of income. And so, using what must have been superhuman strength and courage, Rabbi Yehuda Levin followed the daas Torah he had received — as he had always done in the past — and promptly sold his business for a fraction of its original worth.

Just a few years later, Reb Yehuda suffered a massive, debilitating stroke. Although the prognosis wasn’t good, he eventually regained most of his mobility, but he was considerably weaker than his younger, more vibrant self.

One might assume that a person like Reb Yehuda — who was accustomed to a hefty income and thrived on doling out charity to thousands of people on a regular basis — would be a shell of himself in these conditions. He would most likely be moping around and visibly crestfallen.

But not Yehuda Levin.

On the contrary — his superlative simchas hachayim was more infectious than ever. He continued to learn with vigor, even if it meant pushing himself to do the short walk to Bais Shalom — which now felt like an arduous trek up the side of a mountain. He continued to share his hallmark humor liberally. And, perhaps most inspiring of all — he continued to be a giver.

You see, people often think that they need a brimming bank account in order to be givers. But Rabbi Yehuda Levin showed us that you don’t need much to give of yourself. The moment he arrived home from the rehab center following his stroke, he began slicing and dicing vegetables with his shaky hands to prepare his wife her favorite salad. “I haven’t been able to make it for her in so long,” he explained to his protesting daughter.

Rather than opening his pockets to everyone who knocked on the door, he opened his home to them, providing them with food and lodging. Rather than handing out checks, he used his quivering hands to craft his choicest Israeli delicacies for everyone around to enjoy. And, of course — he continued to spend hours at a time on the phone, advocating on behalf of people who needed to get their child into school, or simply needed a heaping dose of chizuk.

Reb Yehuda Levin returned his pure neshamah to his Creator just a few weeks shy of his 75th birthday. He left behind a legacy of devout dedication to studying Torah, of living modestly regardless of financial success, and of extending himself to others in unfathomable ways, all without any desire for recognition. And he did it all with his unshakeable simchas hachayim. He was born in Adar, and he left us in Adar — perhaps to show us that following in his footsteps is the perfect recipe for the greatest joy of all.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1011)

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