Rabbi Yitzhak Meir Levin was – in every way possible – Hasidic royalty. He was born in 1893 in the Polish town of Góra Kalwaria, or – as it’s known in Yiddish – Ger. And was not only the grandson of the third Gurreh Rebbe, the Sfas Emes, but also married to the daughter of the fourth Gurreh Rebbe, the Imrei Emes.
In 1930, at the age of 37, Rabbi Levin was appointed the head of the Polish branch of Agudas Yisroel, a Haredi political movement that – in pre-war Europe – had an estimated one million followers.
In the Spring of 1940, the top rabbis of the Gurreh hasidic court – who were wanted by the Gestapo – all went into hiding in Warsaw. An emergency message was soon conveyed to their followers in the United States, and thus began a chain reaction that resulted in a handful of visas being smuggled into occupied Poland. These were, naturally, given to the leadership – including Levin – who reluctantly left behind children, grandchildren and hundreds of thousands of followers, most of whom would ultimately be murdered by the Nazis.
Levin arrived in Mandatory Palestine in May 1940. Once here, he was a member of the Jewish Agency’s Rescue Committee for European Jewry, where he repeatedly clashed with secular Zionist leaders, who often found themselves in an impossible situation: While millions of Jews – including their own family members – were being slaughtered in Europe, they were busy trying to build a new society in the Land of Israel. With extremely limited resources at hand, how do you decide what should take precedence?
Levin’s greatest nemesis was fellow future signatory of the Declaration of Independence and Israel’s first Interior Minister, Yitzhak Grünbaum, who went on record saying that not a single cent of the JNF’s funds ought to be spent on rescuing Europe’s Jews.
During those first years in the Land of Israel, Levin was forced to plot a path through the thickets of Jewish and Zionist politics. Should the Agudah party support the establishment of a State, or else adopt an anti – or at least a non- Zionist stance? His answer to this question would have lasting repercussions that continue to reverberate within Israeli society to this very day.
As part of the dilemma, he and other Haredi leaders negotiated matters of religion and state, including – and perhaps most famously – the exemption from military service for 400 yeshivah students, shetoratam umanutam, or whose “studying is their trade.” This compromise eventually ballooned into a widespread and controversial phenomenon with extensive social, political and economic ramifications.
In June 1947 Levin was among those who managed to secure what has come to be known as the “Status Quo” Letter. In that now-famous document, Ben-Gurion promised – among other things – that Shabbat will be the official day of rest in the state-to-be, that kitchens in public institutions will be kosher, and that matters of marriage and divorce will adhere to the dictates of Orthodox Judaism.
With these assurances in hand, Levin agreed to sign the Declaration, despite his many misgivings about its secular nature. Inking his name was, perhaps, made slightly easier by the fact that he didn’t actually attend the Declaration ceremony itself. On May 14, 1948, as the members of Moetzet HaAm congregated in Tel Aviv, he was out fundraising for Agudas Yisroel in far-away New York City, and added his signature to the scroll later on.
After the establishment of the State, Levin served as Israel’s first Minister of Welfare. Four years later, he quit his cabinet post in protest over the notion of women serving in the IDF.
He died in Jerusalem in 1971, at the age of 78, and was buried on the Mount of Olives.
The end song is Niggun Ger (arrangement – Eli Klein and Yitzy Berry), performed by Moshe Duvid Weissmandel accompanied by the Neshama Choir, conducted by Itzik Filmer. (Licensed by Israel Story through Acum)
About Israel Story: Israel Story is the award-winning podcast that tells extraordinary tales about ordinary Israelis. Often called “the Israeli ‘This American Life,’” we bring you quirky, unpredictable, interesting and moving stories about a place we all think we know a lot about, but really don’t. Produced in partnership with The Times of Israel.
Transcript of this episode: