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Thursday, May 6, 2021

Kalman Levine: Born in Kansas City, transformed in L.A., murdered in Jerusalem

Rabbi Kalman Levine, born Cary Levine in Kansas City, Mo. on June 30, 1959, was murdered Tuesday morning in a terror attack at Kehillat Bnei Torah synagogue in the Har Nof neighborhood of Jerusalem. He was in the middle of the daily morning prayer service.

A man who in many ways came of age while living in Los Angeles as a young adult, Levine was killed by two young Palestinian men who also murdered three other worshippers and injured at least another 12 in the synagogue.

The assailants, Odai Abed Abu Jamal, 22, and Ghassan Muhammad Abu Jamal, 32, attacked their victims with a gun, knives and axes.  Both were killed in a subsequent shootout with police. Zidan Saif, an Israeli Druze policeman who engaged the two Palestinian attackers, was shot in the head and died of his wounds Tuesday evening in Jerusalem.

Levine leaves behind a wife, Chaya, who’s from Cleveland, and 10 children and five grandchildren. He was 55.

Shimon Kraft, Levine’s best friend from childhood, lives in Los Angeles and owns The Mitzvah Store. He shared memories of Levine just hours after he learned of the murder. He is also Levine’s former brother-in-law from Kraft’s previous marriage. He spoke about their lives growing up and how Levine, who was not raised Orthodox, was transformed when he spent six months at a kibbutz after high school and then moved to Los Angeles for college only to drop out after becoming engrossed in Torah study and inspired by an influential rabbi in North Hollywood.

Kraft described Levine as an exceedingly humble person, and while he was a serious learner devoted to increasing his knowledge of Judaism and Torah, he also had a sharp sense of humor and loved to joke around. Growing up in Kansas City, Kraft and Levine loved to watch the Kansas City Royals baseball team.

“We lived at Royals Stadium in the summer,” Kraft said. “We used to trade baseball cards.”

After Levine graduated from Kansas City’s Hyman Brand Hebrew Academy in the late ’70s, he lived on a kibbutz in Israel for six months and then returned to the United States to enroll at a pre-dental program at the University of Southern California (USC) in Los Angeles. Although he grew up in a Conservative Jewish family in Kansas City, Levine’s time in Israel led to a religious transformation that led him to become Sabbath and kosher observant.

Levine, after he came to Los Angeles, became very close with Rabbi Zvi Block, who established the first Los Angeles branch of Aish HaTorah—an international Orthodox educational group—in North Hollywood. Levine’s relationship with Block helped solidify the transformation that began in Israel, and Levine eventually decided to drop out of USC and pursue Torah study full-time.

In a telephone interview Tuesday, a discernibly heartbroken Block spoke warmly of his former student. “I became a father to all these children, to all these talmidim (students)—they are like my children,” Block said. “This is a huge loss for me. You’re talking about someone who was 18 or 19 when we first met.”

Levine was one of Block’s first five students at Aish HaTorah and the Los Angeles rabbi remembers Levine as one of the brightest young minds he ever encountered. “When you start off a program you are not sure if you are going to be successful. I feel I owe a lot of gratitude to the ones that helped me start, to the original students,” Block said.

The rabbi also said that he encouraged his small group of students to improve their knowledge of Judaism and Torah by moving to Israel to learn in an environment immersed in yeshiva students.

“My goal at the time was really to send people off to Israel,” Block said. “I thought that would be the best way for them to develop, to really pursue their Judaism to the fullest.”

While Kraft visited Levine in Los Angeles in 1977, the two decided to travel to Israel together to learn Torah. They attended two years of yeshiva before they returned to Los Angeles to attend a post-high school study program at Yeshiva University Los Angeles (YULA).

Kraft said that Levine decided to return to Israel again in the early 1980s—this time he never left. Over the years in Jerusalem, Levine built a family and continued pursuing the passion of his life—Torah. Kraft said Levine even organized a group of men who would get together for the sole purpose of self-improvement and strengthening character traits.

“He was truly great,” Kraft said. “He was so unusual, so special.” Block remembered Levine as being a great entertainer during weddings and goofing off during skits that he and others would put on for the festive Jewish holiday of Purim. “I remember him being extraordinarily talented at weddings and doing all sorts of shtick,” Block said.

On Monday night in Los Angeles, as Kraft was going to bed, he heard about the attack in Har Nof, but didn’t think more of it. On Tuesday morning though, Kraft’s son called from Baltimore and told him the news—his best friend had been murdered.

“He died in the beit midrash [synagogue], which is where he lived his whole life,” Kraft said. “It’s where he lived and died.”

Block, while on the phone, found two books of Jewish law that Levine once gave to him as a symbol of gratitude. Block recalled that Levine wrote a note in one. Eventually finding the note, Block read it aloud as he tried to hold back tears:

“Dear Rabbi Block, here is a small token of appreciation for sending me to Eretz Yisrael. If it wasn't for you it is very possible I would never have had the opportunity to learn Torah. Thank you for changing my life, Kalman Levine.”

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