(All quotes are from “Hasidic People, A Place in the New World” by Jerome R. Mintz, Harvard University Press, 1998.)
One of the most interesting rabbinical personalities to immigrate to America during the first half of the 20th century was Rav Chaim Avraham Dov Ber Levine Hakohen (1859/1860-1938), who was known as the Malach (angel). He was born in the town of Ilya in Russia. His father, a rav in Krisleva, was a follower of the Mitteler Rebbe of Lubavitch, Rabbi Dov Ber, and subsequently of his son the Tzemach Tzedek.
Although a follower of Chabad, Rabbi Levine was also close to a number of Litvishe gedolim, something most unusual at the time. The Malach was recognized as an outstanding talmid chacham, and at a young age obtained semicha from Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spector (1817-1896) at a young age. In addition to being famous for his Torah brilliance, he was also known for his ascetic tendencies.
“In Europe the Malach had been held in high esteem by Rabbi Sholom Dovber Schneersohn (1860-1920), the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe. Rabbi Sholom Dovber had selected him to tutor his own son, Joseph Isaac Schneersohn (1880-1950), who was destined to succeed his father as the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe. The honor brought the Malach disappointment and frustration and led to his estrangement from the Rebbe.”
In 1923 when the Malach’s son, Reb Rifoel Zalman, immigrated to America, the Malach came with him and became the rav of a small Lubavitcher congregation at Washington Avenue and 169th Street in the Bronx.
The Malach was indeed angel-like. He was a large man with a flowing white beard and piercing eyes. He measured his words, investing each one with an aura of significance.
Since he was an eminent sage known for his piety and learning, the Malach attracted a great deal of attention. Visitors came to hear him express his thoughts on the conduct required of a religious man; others came to seek his judgment in business disputes or his advice on pressing family matters.
The Malach was not in favor of studying secular subjects and, when he discovered that his son Rifael had acquired knowledge of biology, he nearly had a stroke. He became white and trembled so violently his family feared for him. He made his son promise never to study biology again.
Included among the Malach’s many admirers was Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, rosh yeshiva of Torah Vodaath, which was then located in Williamsburg on Wilson Street. It was founded in 1914 by Orthodox Jews who wanted to match their religious beliefs to the demands of the new environment. Rabbi Mendlowitz had arrived in the United Stares in that same year. In 1921, at the age of thirty-four, he was appointed principal of Torah Vodaath. It was under his leadership that the yeshiva rose to its position of prominence.
“An innovator and driving force in religious education, he started a mesivta (high school) to continue the education of students under his care, and in general helped to upgrade the level of yeshivah learning in the United States. While still a student in Europe, Rabbi Mendlowitz had become a follower of Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the advocate of the Neo-Orthodox movement in Germany, who welcomed the integration of Western European middle-class culture into Orthodox Judaism. Rabbi Hirsch’s philosophy was summed up in the phrase Torah Im Derech Eretz [Torah with worldly learning].
“While Orthodox religious principles were maintained at Torah Vodaath, the yeshiva was intended to enable the students to compete successfully in the professions and in the marketplace. The goal was to eliminate educational barriers to the acceptance of Orthodox Jews as full-fledged American citizens. In keeping with that goal, Torah Vodaath offered classes not only in traditional religious subjects but also in secular subjects, and the students divided their time between religious and secular spheres.