Some 1,200 members of the greater Los Angeles Jewish community gathered at a Torah dedication ceremony to honor the life of a man who spent more than three decades working to provide Jewish outlets to area public school students.

The celebration itself, occurring one year after the death of Chabad-Lubavitch Rabbi Avraham Levitansky, followed a week-long series of events across Southern California where people could write a letter in the Torah scroll.

“My father was a person who lived his life for ahavat yisrael,” or love of a fellow Jew, said Rabbi Eli Moshe Levitansky, co-director of the campus-based Chabad House serving S. Monica College. “So we wanted to give everyone the opportunity to share in the very important mitzvah of writing a Torah scroll.”

According to those whose lives were touched by the elder Levitansky’s devotion, the rabbi will forever be remembered as the stalwart leader of Chabad of the West Coast’s Released Time Program, which provides school students with one hour of Jewish instruction a week off of school grounds.

But Levitansky, who moved to California in 1967 with wife Chaya Devorah Levitansky to help Rabbi Boruch Shlomo Cunin with Chabad’s West Coast operations, also founded the Bais Chabad Simcha Monica center in S. Monica. Today, another son, Rabbi Isaac Levitansky, runs the center, which hosted Sunday’s Torah ceremony.

As part of the school program – which owes its existence to a 1952 ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court providing for such faith-based initiatives so long as public funds did not finance the projects, the students had parental permission to leave school and the religious instruction did not occur on school premises – Levitansky and his staff would crisscross the area using buses and trucks, even surplus military transport vehicles.

One of the teachers was Stella Eliezrie, co-director of Yorba Linda, Calif.’s North County Chabad Center. Back then, she was 17-year-old Stella Ruta and “having a great time” teaching elementary school students about Judaism.

That summer, Levitansky picked her to run a day camp with the help of a 12-year-old assistant.

“He gave me a lot of responsibility without asking too many questions,” said Eliezrie. “He trusted me, which was a big compliment.”

Some of the Released Time activities occurred at the home of Shoshana Plotkin. The 53-year-old Los Angeles resident remembers being home one day from middle school and watching Levitansky interact with the children, one of whom was her little sister.

“He had this warmth, this exuberance,” said Plotkin, whose parents hosted the meetings despite not being religious themselves. “He used to bring everything into life; you felt like you were there. Everything had a story attached to it.”

Around the same time, Plotkin’s mother took them to the local Chabad House for Simchat Torah and Purim festivities. Plotkin herself started exploring Judaism in earnest in high school; when Chabad of the Valley opened her senior year, she rushed to be a part of it.

Now a mother of seven children, one of whom directs the Chabad-Lubavitch of New Paltz, N.Y., Plotkin attributes her family’s religious commitment to Levitansky.

“It all started,” she mused, “with him doing the Released Time Program in our kitchen and dining room.”

Making a Gas Station Fun

Smaller than the typical Torah, the size was chosen to make the holy scroll accessible to senior citizens and children.
Smaller than the typical Torah, the size was chosen to make the holy scroll accessible to senior citizens and children.

When the school year was out, Levitansky saw to it that Jewish children continued their learning at the Camp Gan Israel that he started in Los Angeles.

Eliezrie recalled that the rabbi once took campers on a day trip, but the group’s bus broke down on the middle of the highway. He stopped at a gas station to get the bus fixed.

“He bought everyone sodas,” said Eliezrie. “He told them stories and entertained them. They had no idea that the bus was broken.”

When they eventually returned to camp, having never made it to their intended destination, Levitansky was sure that a certain mother would call to complain, but when the phone did ring, it was the woman saying that her son had so much fun. She wanted to know where they went, because the child wanted to celebrate his birthday there.

“He made everything wonderful, happy and joyous,” said Eleizrie.

Levitansky’s offspring – both in the literal and symbolic senses – continue the rabbi’s work, trying to emulate his enthusiasm. At the Torah dedication ceremony, a children’s program featured moon bounces, arts and crafts tables, and cotton candy.

For the adults, the opportunity to write a letter in the scroll was inspiring. (An estimated 1,000 letters were filled in by Jewish Angelenos over the previous week.)

Jeremy Weinstein, a 26-year-old assistant editor at a cable television network, said that he “felt lucky to be a part of it all.”

“There were lots and lots of people,” he said of the Sunday event. “It was a great celebration.”

In a way, Weinstein owed his presence at the dedication to Levitansky. Just before Passover this week, the West Los Angeles resident was walking to his car when Yisrael Levitansky, one of the Levitanskys’ 14 children, stopped him.

“He asked if I wanted to put on tefillin,” related Weinstein. “It made my day.”

Since that meeting, Weinstein has been attending services at the S. Monica Chabad center.

Yechiel Shlomo Levitansky, another of the rabbi’s sons, saw meaning in the fact that the Torah itself was smaller than typical scrolls found in synagogues.

“My father always wanted a small Torah scroll so that older people and children would be able to hold it,” he said. “This was how he conducted his life in general. He would relate to small children the same way he related to adults: with complete devotion.”