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Let’s Focus on Soaring


Rav Avrohom Chaim didn’t just give shiur — he taught every bochur the fundamental principle of achrayus (Photos Mattis Goldberg and AEGedolimphotos.com)


Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin smiled in that warm, genial way, indicating the conversation was over. He’d sat with me for the better part of an hour, speaking of his rebbeim and their vision, the mission they’d charged him with back in 1960, and the early challenges of creating a yeshivah in Chicago.

I was the writer, putting together a piece marking 50 years of the Telshe Yeshivah in Chicago, and he was the rosh yeshivah, the founder, keeper of the memories.

But to him, it wasn’t his story, and the conversation wasn’t about him.

He’d allowed for nostalgia and a bit of pride in the wider community, what Chicago had become. He said the words ‘yeshivish’ and ‘yeshivaman’ with such genuine sweetness that the room seemed brighter every time he used them.

I asked about the Rosh Yeshivah’s own role. His son Rav Shmuel Yehuda had recently started delivering the daily shiur, and much of the Rosh Yeshivah’s time was being occupied by needs of the klal — not just in Chicago, where his impact was felt throughout the community, but across the American Torah world. He was a member of the Moetzes Gedolei Torah of Agudath Israel and chairman of Torah Umesorah’s Vaad Roshei Yeshivah; and he was an active rebbi to generations of talmidim, mechanchim, and balebatim, who maintained regular contact with him.

He didn’t see his new role as a big change, he said. The tafkid, the mission, is to increase kevod Shamayim. For decades he’d done it in the shiur room, and now he’d shifted his focus a bit — but it was the same essential mission.

He was quiet then — the conversation was done. But the Rebbetzin had something to add, a detail that pertained to his sense of shlichus, the duty to his nation.

He told her it wasn’t that important.

She walked me to the door, the Rosh Yeshivah looking on with bemused tolerance.

“We were in Eretz Yisrael last summer,” the Rebbetzin said, “and we had the zechus to visit Rav Michel Yehuda Lefkowitz. My husband asked for just one brachah — for koach to work for the klal.”


Unwelcome, Embraced

The radiance of Rav Avrohom Chaim, the power in his every word, the rush of warmth you felt when he took your hand, wasn’t his own innovation. He was a talmid first, but even before that, he was a son.

His father, Rav Eliezer Levin, was a unique figure in the post-war American rabbinate, a talmid of the Chofetz Chaim and of Kelm. After arriving in the US with his young family in the 1930s, he wandered a rabbinic route through small-town America before ending up in Detroit.

The Lithuanian immigrant with the accented English had no college degree; he embodied none of the contemporary, futuristic visions of other rabbis; and basically, his arrival was greeted with indifference.

Rav Leizer, however, would emerge as the most respected rav in Detroit, presiding over its Vaad Harabbonim and earning the admiration of all segments of the Jewish community. His son-in-law, Rabbi Berel Wein, would often point out that when Rav Leizer passed away in 1992, along with the hespeidim in yeshivos and shuls, there was an obituary in the Detroit Free Press. In print, they mourned the leading light of the local rabbinate — the immigrant who’d once been so unwelcome.

Rav Avrohom Chaim, an only son (he had three sisters), observed his father and inherited his legacy. Perhaps that’s why, when faced with a difficult decision years later, a secular executive at Chicago’s Jewish Federation would ask, “What does Rabbi Levin say?”

Back then, Rav Leizer had a friend. Rav Eliyahu Meir Bloch had lost his family in the fires of Europe, and before marrying again, he spent Pesach in Detroit at the home of Rav Leizer Levin.
At the Seder, the rosh yeshivah of the reborn Telshe Yeshiva in Wickliffe, Ohio, said a vort, on the words, “Gadol atzum varav” — commonly taken to mean that the Jewish nation was “numerous.” The Rosh Yeshivah explained, however, that “varav” does not refer to their size, which is already included in the term “atzum.” Rather, varav refers to their spiritually heroic greatness as a people. History has shown us that even when Jewish people appear to be struggling spiritually, their greatness is merely hidden — evident by the rise of a nation that left the depths of impurity yet was able to receive the Torah 49 days later.
It was a thought, perhaps a reference to state of American Jewry and its latent potential — but also, a message to the young boy, Avrohom Chaim, seated at that Seder table. At the time, Rav Avrohom Chaim was attending public school in Detroit, as there were no other options in the 1930s and early ’40s (he was born in 1932). But the Rosh Yeshivah sensed that not only would he become great, he would inspire greatness in others.

Closer to Home

After his bar mitzvah, Avrohom Chaim Levin was sent to learn in Wickliffe.
Telshe would come alive in the heart of the young talmid — the shiurim, the outlook, the glory. He incorporated all of it.
Talmidim of the era remember the teenager from Detroit as exhibiting an aura of malchus, the dignity that comes along with intense hasmadah and true understanding. Legend has it that the rosh yeshivah, Rav Elya Meir, once observed as his talmid bent down to pick a scrap of paper of the floor, and remarked, “You will be a rosh yeshivah one day.”
I asked Rav Avrohom Chaim if the story was true, and he responded by taking my hand and rubbing it, a gentle reproach for asking what he considered an irrelevant question.
Instead, he recalled a time in yeshivah when the bochurim had misbehaved. They knew that what they’d done was beneath them, and they were ready for a fiery shmuess from the Rosh Yeshivah. Rav Elya Meir came into the beis medrash and looked around. “We all know how low a person can fall,” he said, “but now let’s focus how high man can soar.”
Rav Avrohom Chaim soared.
In time, this son of gedolim and talmid of gedolim married a daughter of gedolim. Rebbetzin Esther was the daughter of Rav Ephraim Mordechai and Rebbetzin Zlata Ginsberg. Rebbetzin Zlata was the daughter of Rav Chatzkel Levenstein, and her husband, Rav Ephraim Mordechai, was a rosh yeshivah in Mir and a talmid of the Brisker Rav.
Along with the influence of his father’s Kelm and his rebbi’s Telshe, the young talmid chacham incorporated these paths as well into what would become a system, an outlook that would impact thousands of talmidim.
In 1959, Reb Leizer Levin lost his rebbetzin, Sarah Menucha, so Rav Avrohom Chaim and his new wife moved to Detroit in order to be near his father during that difficult, lonely time.
That’s when the call came.
Rav Elya Meir had already left this world, and his brother-in-law, Rav Mottel Katz, was leading Telshe in Wickliffe.
The yeshivah, one of the largest in the United States, had talmidim from across the country and Rav Mottel, a man of vision and determination, understood the landscape perfectly. He knew that there were many boys who weren’t going to yeshivah — but they might have, had there been options closer to home.
Telshe, Rav Mottel felt, had a responsibility to bring the world of the yeshivah to these communities — and Chicago was on his map.
Rav Mottel Katz tapped Rav Avrohom Chaim for the job. The star Telshe talmid didn’t want to leave his father, but Rav Mottel told him to try it for Elul of 1960, and then they would discuss it again.
Rav Mottel himself chose the first 12 talmidim for the new yeshivah, and Rav Avrohom Chaim, along with Rav Chaim Schmelczer, packed up two station wagons with six bochurim in each, hooked up trailers to the back filled with seforim, and headed up Interstate 90.

You Never Lose
After Succos that year, Rav Leizer Levin was ready to rebuild his home with his second rebbetzin, and Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin and his wife settled in Chicago.
The city, recalled an early talmid, wasn’t really ready for the shift. If it had been anyone else, it wouldn’t have worked.
But Rav Avrohom Chaim blended conviction with humility, and as he told me that day, “It was the brachah of our roshei yeshivah and the warmth of Rav Chaim Schmelczer — he was able to win over any antagonists.”
The custom in Chicago, even within the Orthodox community, was that most events and simchahs were held at the banquet halls of the non-Orthodox shuls. The young rosh yeshivah decided that the staff of the Telshe Yeshivah would find other ways to convey respect, but they would not attend events in venues where there were open breaches of halachah. Live and let live.
Except that it wasn’t really let live, because the locals wanted the Rosh Yeshivah at their events. They liked him. And so they adapted.
Slowly, the city started to embrace not just the yeshivah, but what it represented. Even those who didn’t understand Rav Avrohom Chaim’s shiurim on Bava Kamma were taken in by his menschlichkeit, his dignity and respect.
Rebbetzin Esther Levin accepted a position teaching fifth grade at the local Arie Crown Day School. Over the years, several “yeshivishe” schools would open, but Rebbetzin Levin held on to her job, lovingly teaching children at Arie Crown — because much more than a job, it was part of the mission. And mission was everything to this couple.
Not long after the yeshivah’s establishment, Rav Avrohom Chaim was joined by his brother-in-law, ybdlch”t Rav Chaim Dov Keller, and together with Rav Chaim Schmelczer, they assembled a staff of maggidei shiur. Soon families began to settle around the yeshivah. Rav Mottel Katz’s vision was taking root.
There was something about the Telshe-Chicago talmid. Something beyond the exuberance in learning, the decorum, the respect for other people. It was the way they carried themselves.
“If you went to the yeshivah for a few years and attended the Rosh Yeshivah’s shmuessen,” says a talmid, “then you heard the words from Yeshayahu, ‘Kol hanikra biShmi, velichvodi berasiv, yetzartiv af asisiv — It is for My glory that I have created it, formed it, and also made it,’ and they would seep in, that whatever you’re going to do in life, whether you’re a rebbi or doctor or street sweeper, you’re going to do it with an awareness of the goal. The Rosh Yeshivah seared this onto our neshamos. Man has a shlichus, and his every moment is an opportunity to create kevod Shamayim.”
Telshe-Chicago’s high school has a full four-year general studies program accredited by the Illinois Board of Education. That’s in addition to the post high-school beis medrash program and kollel track.
Like in most conventional yeshivos, the Rosh Yeshivah spoke about Torah. He spoke about mussar and yiras Shamayim. He spoke about middos. But unlike in most conventional yeshivos, he would speak to young bochurim about achrayus to Klal Yisrael.
I asked him about it. He told me how his own rebbi had told him to get involved with Agudath Yisrael. “I was still a bochur, and believe me, nothing meant more to my rebbi than a blatt Gemara, so I learned from this that one doesn’t lose from doing for others.”
It was like every other gift he received from his rebbeim. He didn’t see himself as more innovative than them, and he felt no need to change. In Telshe-Chicago, there were committees created to invest bochurim with that sense of achrayus — a Torah publishing committee and a Melaveh Malkah committee and a Pirchei committee. On Thursday evenings, the yeshivah doors were opened to children from the wider community who came to learn with, and be exposed to, “real” yeshivah bochurim.
And within the yeshivah, older bochurim were well aware of their achrayus to draw younger bochurim close and learn with them.
So of course the alumni of this yeshivah, regardless of career path, have a certain distinction.

Everything Exalted
In his shmuessen, and even in his shiurim, Rav Avrohom Chaim based his path on that of his rebbi, Rav Elya Meir Bloch. And just as Rav Elya Meir reacted to disappointment by giving a shmuess about the heights to which man can soar, Rav Avrohom Chaim did the same.
One Purim, the spirit of levity and cheerfulness led some bochurim to cross the line of good taste, and they released a newsletter mocking some of the personnel and customs of the yeshivah.
They knew the Rosh Yeshivah was upset, and when he rose to give a shmuess after Purim was over, they braced themselves for and intense dressing-down.
“I saw the newsletter,” the Rosh Yeshivah began, “and in it, I saw such kishron, such ingenuity. So now that we’ve identified those talents, the job becomes to use it for that which it’s meant to be used for….”
The heights to which man can soar.
He taught them of their own dignity by example, but not only by example. He worked hard to develop their sensitivities to every action, to teach them that man’s conduct is a reflection of his essence.
On Erev Shabbos, the Rosh Yeshivah and his sons would leave home early, arriving in yeshivah several minutes before Minchah. They would circulate in the empty beis medrash and pick up stray tissues and scraps of paper, preparing the room for Shabbos.
Decades later, one of the Rosh Yeshivah’s sons came to spend Shabbos with his parents. He headed to yeshivah on Erev Shabbos, before Minchah — but it was no longer quiet. The walls seemed to shake from the sweet kol Torah, an army of young men filling the beis medrash.
At Rav Avrohom Chaim’s levayah last week, his son cried out, “Pa would take us to yeshivah early on Erev Shabbos to pick up scraps of paper. Someone who does that is zocheh to hear the roar of bochurim learning during that time.”
Rav Avrohom Chaim had imparted a message to his talmidim: Those who learn Torah are exalted, refined, the pinnacle of creation.
In time, they started to believe it. It wasn’t beneath him to give examples. If he noticed bochurim taking cake from the large platters before Kiddush he would mention it. One Rosh Hashanah night, he noticed some bochurim taking portions of fish before Kiddush had been recited.
During the seudah, when the bochurim were expecting to hear a shmuess about the glory of man, the seriousness of the season, the purpose of creation, the Rosh Yeshivah instead spoke about what he’d seen. He expressed astonishment that people who learn Torah all day could display such a lack of middos by grabbing food that was limited, at the expense of other people.
At the time, the shmuess seemed anticlimactic. But years later, a talmid admitted, he finally understood that Rav Avrohom Chaim’s shmuess that Rosh Hashanah night wasn’t a break from the theme of the day, but its essence.
It was all the same: the beis medrash, the dining room — and even the back office.
A yeshivah administrator recalled coming to work at Telshe, where he expected to find the roshei yeshivah involved strictly in the major decisions. But it turned out that when it came to yeshivah finances, every small detail was major. “Every check, every letter, every paper clip, was important. There were no gray areas. In the world of Torah, the roshei yeshivah taught, everything is holy.”

Cord of Love
Rav Avrohom Chaim would share a tradition he had from his own rebbi: Torah in America could only be built b’simchah, through joy.
When Rav Avrohom Chaim and Rav Chaim Schmelczer had driven those two station wagons from Cleveland, the bochurim inside — the 12 founding members of Telshe-Chicago — were singing a song. The words were, “Samachti be’omrim li, beis Hashem neilech.”
Only with simchah.
And nowhere was Rav Avrohom Chaim’s simchah more evident than in the shiur itself: He would smile as he said the vort, laugh out loud after sharing a satisfying terutz.
He didn’t only speak about shteiging, about growth — he himself never stopped toiling. In fact, he readily conceded that in his younger years, he’d been more prone to anger, and he’d worked hard to eradicate that middah. Over the last decade of his life, when his impact was felt across the American Torah world, his persona was one of tremendous warmth and patience.
I remember watching him walk through the hotel lobby at the Agudah convention, a group of Chicago balebatim encircling him like a security detail, a cord of love running between the Rosh Yeshivah and his devoted entourage. He was speaking, and they were laughing.
The Rosh Yeshivah shared a personal detail: Rav Chaim Schmelczer had been a man of tremendous personal appeal and charisma — warm, humorous, and kindhearted. He’d passed away young, and left a gaping void. At that point, Rav Avrohom Chaim realized that his own avodah had changed, and he adapted accordingly.
But Rav Avrohom Chaim always had Klal Yisrael on his mind, says his lifelong friend, Rav Moshe Mendel Glustein, rosh yeshivah of Yeshiva Gedola of Montreal.
But, Rav Glustein reflects, it was Klal Yisrael not as some lofty ideal or concept, but as a collection of real individuals.
Rav Glustein speaks from experience. He was 16 years old when he made the 22-hour trip from Montreal to Wickliffe. He walked into a new yeshivah, suddenly surrounded by more rabbanim than he’d seen in his entire life.
One older bochur approached. “Shalom aleichem, welcome, let’s get you something to eat,” said the teenage Avrohom Chaim Levin.
A few years later, Avrohom Chaim told his friend, “Moshe Mendel, it’s time you started to say chaburos, to share your chidushei Torah with younger bochurim.”
The Canadian talmid appreciated the chizuk. “I’ll do it, but only if you join as well,” he said.
“I would love to, but I simply have no time. My schedule is full,” Avrohom Chaim responded.
The next day, however, he came back to his friend. “I found a time. Let’s do it at six-thirty in the morning, before Shacharis. I would love to participate.”
In the early years of the Telshe Yeshivah of Chicago, the Rosh Yeshivah would call a talmid each Motzaei Yom Kippur with a request. The yeshivah would host an annual Simchas Beis Hashoeivah, and the Rosh Yeshivah — always punctual and precise — wanted signs written and hung up around the city, an invitation to the public to join in.
With the passage of time, the yeshivah started to use the services of a graphic designer. But each Motzaei Yom Kippur, the Rosh Yeshivah would call this talmid. “Why should we lose our minhag of wishing each other a ‘gut yohr’ just because someone else is doing the signs?” he asked.
One year, my grandfather, Rav Chaskel Besser, wasn’t feeling well, and he was forced to miss the Agudah convention. He’d served as chairman of the Motzaei Shabbos session for decades, and it was hard for him to be away. I visited him that night and saw his dismay at being far from a place and from people he loved.
Later in the evening, he received a phone call and his spirits lifted somewhat. It was Rav Avrohom Chaim — with whom he wasn’t particularly close — who’d phoned to say that he’d been missed. “It wasn’t the same without you,” Rav Levin said.
“I always liked that man. He’s a prince,” my grandfather told me.

I’m Behind You
And nowhere was this more evident than in the way he built up the city he’d been chosen to serve. Because he understood that if he could inspire one individual, then another, in time the whole community would be inspired.
Early on, one of the talmidei chachamim on the Telshe staff was asked to head a night seder chaburah at a local shul. But this posed a serious question: Was Telshe there to serve the community, or was the yeshivah’s focus meant to be inward?
Rav Avrohom Chaim thought, then said, “You should accept the position — but learn the mesechta we’re learning in yeshivah.”
Yes, the yeshivah should focus inward — but at the same time share the light with those on the outside.
There was a surge of energy that came forth from the Rosh Yeshivah’s house and coursed through the streets of Chicago. It was his smile, empowering new rabbanim, untried mechanchim, inexperienced askanim. Many of them weren’t formal talmidim, but they became his talmidim.
All of Chicago did.
Warmth, strength, courage, and clarity held together by ropes of selflessness.
Rav Avrohom Chaim was in New York for the wedding of a talmid, who was also the son of a talmid. He was to be mesader kiddushin, but before the chuppah he sent for Rav Henoch Plotnik, one of Chicago’s younger rabbanim.
The Rosh Yeshivah showed the kesubah to Rabbi Plotnik. “You’re a rav, please look this over.”
The Rosh Yeshivah had filled out hundreds of kesubos over the years, but here was an opportunity he wouldn’t miss. One more young rav, one more burst of encouragement, one more chance to say, “I’m behind you.”
Rav Elya Meir would say that there are men who are so great that they make you feel small in their presence. But his father, Rav Avrohom Yitzchok Bloch, was the sort of the giant who made those near him feel great as well.
The Rosh Yeshivah, Rav Avrohom Chaim, would often repeat this. The man who came with a carload of bochurim to start a yeshivah in a rented shul basement saw greatness flourish all around him — his family, his talmidim, his city, and his nation. Because great men make those around them great as well. —

(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 738)

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