Iranian Jewish Culure
Rabbi Isaac Meir Levi
Erudite Jews of the World

Rabbi Isaac Meir Levi

Isaac Meir Levi was born toward the end of 1905 C.E. to an Orthodox Jewish family of Kraków, the former capital and one of the largest cities of Poland.

His father Rabbi Ezriel Levi was a well-known sage of the city of Kraków. Isaac Meir Levi began his religious studies as a child at the school of his father Rabbi Ezriel. Later, at the yeshiva i.e. the Jewish Religious Seminary, he studied the advanced Jewish law and other religious subjects under the guidance of Rabbi Shem Shemouel “Samuel”. He graduated with a Rabbinical Diploma, and he went on to pursue his ancestral career. Until the occupation of Poland by the German forces, he taught and learned at the Jewish Seminaries of various other cities. With the onset of WWII, countless Polish Jews were imprisoned in the ghettos and in the Nazi concentration camps, while many others struggled to escape the ominous fate of the Holocaust by reaching Russia, and thence, their ancestral home, the Holy Land, which was then under the British rule.

Rabbi Isaac Levi and his family belonged to the latter group who planned to emigrate temporarily to Russia. However, during the chase and flight, an incident separated Rabbi Levi from his wife and two children. He suffered much, until he had made it to Israel. And only after six years of separation and search, in 1945 C.E., could they rejoin in Jerusalem. In the meantime, throughout the war, by the way of his humanitarian services, Rabbi Levi maintained full connection to his fellow Polish Jews.

In 1941 C.E., Rabbi Isaac Levi joined the Rabbinical Rescue Commission to actively aid the homeless of the war and the survivors of the Holocaust, especially the rabbis who had taken refuge to Russia. On many occasions, to send packages of medicine, food, clothing items, and other necessities to the war-stricken refugees in Russia, he relied on Iran as the bridge that helped him carry out his humanitarian goals, since this country offered the closest path between the Soviet Russia and the outside world.

Thus, toward the end of 1942 C.E., Rabbi Isaac Levi first came to Tehran, on behalf of the chief rabbinical authority of the Holy Land, in collaboration with the Rabbinical Rescue Commission; and thereafter, for more than two years, he was busy offering aid and sending packages of food, medicine and other necessities to the homeless of the war and the refugee rabbis.

During his stay, as he got to know the Jewish community of Iran, he was surprised to see how little Hebrew their youngsters knew, and how inadequate was the grasp of many adults of the Torah and the religious laws and traditions. Rabbi Isaac Levi was further concerned that despite the decades since the birth of the Alliance Israélite schools in Iran, the Hebrew language and the Jewish religious subjects had not received their due attention. Thus, he decided to open a yeshiva or Jewish Seminary in Tehran.

WWII was coming to an end. The wartime damage inflicted on the Jewish people had to be mended, and the loss rebuilt. Rabbi Levi meant to find an opportunity to do his share in the reconstruction by engaging himself in the holy task of teaching the Torah. He first shared his wishes with the heads of the Iranian Jewish community and the Chebra, i.e. the predecessor of the Tehran Jewish Association, besides the religious clerics, but he was faced with much trouble and many obstructions. Unshaken, he persisted and provided a small budget, and thus he founded personally a series of Hebrew classes on the Fakhr-Abad Street of Tehran. Shortly afterwards, he seized the first chance to visit America, lay out his goals, and discuss the future of the younger generation of the Iranian Jewish community. The financial aid from the American Rabbi Cutler, and the donations received from the Syrian American millionaire, Isaac Shalom, a head of the American Joint, JDC, allowed Rabbi Levi to enlist the assistance and support of Shlomo Cohen-Sedegh — or Kohan-Sedgh, a.k.a. Sultan Sulayman — and the cooperation of a number of other Iranian Jewish philanthropists, to establish the Brith Torah Association in Iran, which started its cultural activities in 1945 C.E.

The Brith Torah Association continued its educational activities to the middle of 1947. The shortage and irregularities of its budget, however, compelled Rabbi Levi to travel back to New York. This time, aided by Morad Arieh — the Jewish Representative in the Iranian National Parliament — and Isaac Shalom, he negotiated with the American Joint, JDC. Consequently, he secured their agreement to establish and expand the Otzar HaTorah branches throughout Iran. Furthermore, with the considerable budget provided by the JDC, he would succeed to open the Otzar HaTorah schools in Tehran and several other Iranian cities.

Back in Tehran, and without hesitation, Rabbi Levi asked Shlomo Cohen-Sedegh to work with him as the Vice President. With the budget provided by the American Joint, Rabbi Levi expanded his cultural activities throughout all Iranian towns and cities. He annulled the Brith Torah Association, and he replaced it with the Otzar HaTorah or Ganj­‑e Danesh system, i.e. “The Treasure of Knowledge” organization. To get things started, Rabbi Isaac Levi chose a number of young religious people who liked to teach, and he taught them the necessary religious subjects through short-term seminars. He then designed the curriculum for the schools.

Concurrently, he invited Chacham Yehoshua “Joshua” Netaneli, a graduate of the Technion, that is, the Israel Institute of Technology at Haifa, and the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, to lead the Otzar HaTorah “Ganj‑e Danesh” School of Shiraz. Thus, beginning in 1948 C.E., and for the following 12 years, Chacham Netaneli also served excellently as an instructor of the Hebrew language and religious subjects. Then, upon Rabbi Levi’s request, he came to Tehran to serve as the Chair of the teacher-training seminars i.e. the yeshiva. With the passing of Shlomo Cohen-Sedegh in 1963 C.E., Chacham Netaneli was appointed as the President of the Otzar HaTorah headquarters, besides that he served as the Vice Chair of the Otzar HaTorah of Iran during Dr. Norman Paris’ Chairmanship.

In 1928 C.E., Rabbi Isaac Levi married his future wife Chaya. The couple brought two children, a son and a daughter, to the world. His elder son, Rabbi Jacob Levi, taught for awhile at the Otzar HaTorah schools of Iran. He also led the Ganj‑e Danesh School of Shiraz for two years.

Rabbi Isaac Levi was a religious figure, erudite scholar, and intelligent personality. He had an intimate knowledge of the Kabbalah. Besides Polish, he was fluent in Hebrew, Yiddish, Russian, English and Persian. Although his family lived in Jerusalem, he spent much of his time in Iran, for his love of Judaism, his passion to teach the Torah, and his affection toward his religious beliefs. He traveled to most Iranian cities and towns where Jews lived, he studied their cultural and social conditions up-close, and despite the opposition, where the need was, he opened a school, or a yeshiva, to teach Hebrew and the religious subjects to his fellow Jews in that city.

To emphasize, shortly after the Ganj‑e Danesh School was opened in Tehran, by Rabbi Levi’s persistent efforts and with the cooperation of some Iranian Jewish philanthropists, the Kousar and Ganj‑e Danesh schools for the girls and boys were founded in most Iranian towns and cities with a Jewish population, or the Otzar HaTorah Hebrew classes, also known as yeshivot, were opened there. By organizing educational courses and teacher-training seminars, Rabbi Levi expanded remarkably the range of his cultural activities in Iran, and thus, he stirred a fresh spirit in the community to promote Hebrew and optimize the religious beliefs of the Jews of Iran.

Before long, via the Otzar HaTorah Cultural Association, Rabbi Isaac Levi brought the Ettehad “Alliance” Schools under his educational cover; and by sending out experienced Hebrew teachers, he largely transformed how Hebrew was taught, especially within the educational system of the Jewish schools and other related cultural institutions. Moreover, by organizing the annual summer training camps, the youngsters and young adults were given a chance to enjoy refreshments, benefit from certain athletic programs, including lessons in swimming, and participate in other fun activities. As such, for 15 days, the younger members of the community were allowed to partake in a fully religious atmosphere and perform Jewish religious ceremonies. The camps also provided them with an opportunity to meet new people and connect to fellow Jews of their age from other Iranian cities. On another note, Rabbi Levi not only employed the services of Iranian teachers, but also he enlisted the assistance of the Jerusalem rabbis skilled in the teaching of the Torah, known as shaliach or “envoy”, for the teacher-training seminars that were organized for women and men.

Ever since its birth, the Otzar HaTorah Organization served invaluably to teach and promote Hebrew and the religious studies among the Jews of Iran. And over the years, it taught and trained students and teachers who would become known as the Chachamim and Rabbis of the Iranian Jewish community around the world. Among them, we may mention Chacham Ouriel Davidi, Chacham Mousa “Moshe” Zargari, Masha-Allah Rahmanpour, Rahman Delrahim, Sion “Zion” Hakkakian, Ess-hagh “Isaac” Ba’al HaNess, Parvaneh Sarraf, Nissan Eghbali, Mousa Tajian, Manouchehr Mehrnia, Rabbi Malekan, and more.

In addition to training the teachers at the seminars held in Tehran or Shiraz, Rabbi Levi sent every year a number of the graduates to Jerusalem to pursue advanced religious studies through compact short-term courses. There, for six to twelve months, these trainees would complete their studies under the guidance of experienced rabbis and instructors. The Otzar HaTorah Organization also published and distributed many textbooks for Hebrew and religious studies at various grade levels. Rabbi Isaac Levi intended to establish a religious and cultural center at the academic level in Jerusalem, dedicated to the Iranian youngsters, to provide them with advanced Hebrew and religious education. However, he did not live long enough to fulfill that dream.

Rabbi Isaac Levi was very much active in the cultural affairs. He didn’t sleep more than 4 hours at night, and he spent most of his time attending to the affairs of the schools, designing plans to expand and optimize their conditions, and the other cultural goals of the Otzar HaTorah. He handled his written correspondence personally, and the textbooks were published under his supervision. He was active far beyond what his physical limits would permit, and the fatigue of these relentless efforts defeated him in his midlife.

Rabbi Isaac Meir Levi passed away on May the 22nd, 1962 C.E., the 18th of Iyyar, 5722 of the Hebrew Calendar, the 33rd day of Omer, the 1st of Khordad, 1341 of the Persian Calendar, in the afternoon, at the age of 56, in Jerusalem, of heart attack, as he was typing a letter.

Rabbi Levi’s wife Chaya had passed away in 1961 at a hospital, 7 months before the passing of Rabbi Levi.

After the passing of Rabbi Isaac Meir Levi, his son Rabbi Jacob Aharon HaLevi founded a kollel, advanced religious seminary for married men, in Jerusalem, to commemorate his parents and console their souls — so that a number of rabbis will always be learning the Torah round the clock.


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