Menu JTA Search

Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin, Chief Rabbi of Moscow, Dies at 78

Chief Rabbi Yehuda Leib Levin of Moscow–the Russian capital’s only rabbi during the past three years–died there today at the age of 78. He leaves his wife, three grown daughters and 15 grandchildren. Reports reaching here this afternoon from Moscow gave conflicting causes of death. Some attributed it to pneumonia, others to cancer of the prostate. Rabbi Levin was hospitalized this year for a prostate condition. Funeral services–limited by the authorities to three hours–will be held Sunday afternoon at Moscow’s Choral Synagogue, where Rabbi Levin was spiritual leader.

Rabbi Levin, a tall man with an impressive bearing, studied in Slobodka, a suburb of Kovno, Lithuania, under Rabbi Baruch Ber Leibowitz. He then became the rabbi of Dniepopetrovsk, White Russia, and subsequently became the rector and then the rabbi of one of Moscow’s two yeshivot. He had held his final post for about a decade.

A controversial figure because of his defense of Soviet policy toward Jews, Rabbi Levin was backed by Orthodox groups who stressed that he was under constant surveillance by Soviet agents. The Orthodox saw him as a heroic figure who had managed to maintain some semblance of Jewish life–such as synagogue activities and matzoh-baking–in his officially atheistic country. They also saw him as a tragic figure who had to say publicly what he–with his deep religious convictions–did not really believe.

MET WITH HOSTILE RECEPTION

Many, however, were not so charitable. On the evening of June 19, 1968, Rabbi Levin was accorded a hostile reception when, in an appearance at Hunter College here, he denied the existence of Soviet anti-Semitism. In a radio interview that week, he said “all the restrictions on culture, work and similar matters were eliminated and the Jews have the same rights as other nationalities.”

Charges of such anti-Semitism, he said, stemmed from “bad tongues, evil tongues, those that engage in gossip,” and were circulated by “false prophets” who sought “strained relations among the governments.” American Jews, he said, could come to Russia themselves and see that Jews there “occupy a prominent place in science and technology, in literature and art, and we, like all other peoples, are contributing our part to all branches of knowledge, of the economy, in building our socialist society.”

Albert D. Chernin, coordinator of the American Jewish Conference on Soviet Jewry, protested then that Rabbi Levin “has been obliged to place a fine gloss over the real and tragic plight of Soviet Jewry,” which Chernin said was “poised upon the precipice of disaster.”

Dr. Nahum Goldmann, then as now president of the World Jewish Congress, condemned the outbursts of the Hunter audience as showing “a lack of understanding for the delicate position of Soviet Jewry and especially for the position of Rabbi Levin, who is trying under difficult circumstances to maintain Jewish religious life in Russia.”

NOT AGENT OF KREMLIN

The demonstration, Dr. Goldmann said, “did great harm to the strenuous efforts that have been going on for years to establish contact between Soviet Jewry and Jewish communities outside of the Soviet Union.”

Rabbi Levin was saddened by the reception accorded him at Hunter. Speaking at the Jewish Educational Center in Elizabeth, N.J., he said: “The hurt was not for myself. I was not personally offended. I was offended for the Jewish community in Moscow, which had sent me.” Rabbi Levin insisted he was not an agent of the Kremlin. “I have no instructions but one,” he said. “Peace between our two countries and contact between Russian and American Jewry.”

Less than two weeks ago Rabbi Levin officiated at a conversion of a woman who had received her exit visa for Israel. It was the first such conversion in Moscow in 20 years. Rabbi Levin visited the United States in 1968 and Hungary in 1969.

NEXT STORY