Leonard Levy, like so many of his time, became a man the day he enlisted. In 1937 – against his mother’s wishes – Leonard joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was 16. When he came home to tell his parents what he had done, his mother said: “You did what?!” She turned to his father: “Morty, do something!” And Morty put his hands together to applaud his son.
Leonard Levy - Arieh Yitzchak ben Mordechai HaLevy v’Tz’viah - November 29, 2015Leonard Levy, like so many of his time, became a man the day he enlisted. In 1937 – against his mother’s wishes – Leonard joined the Royal Canadian Air Force. He was 16. When he came home to tell his parents what he had done, his mother said: “You did what?!” She turned to his father: “Morty, do something!” And Morty put his hands together to applaud his son.
This week’s Torah portion describes the moment Joseph became a man, when he enlisted for a mission in search of his brothers. His father Jacob said to Joseph: “L’cha v’esh-la-cha-cha aleichem.” “Come, let me send you out to your brothers.” “Vayomeir lo: Hineini.” “And he answered: Here I am.” This was at the heart of Leonard’s character. “Hineini. Here I am. Ready to serve. Ready and able to do what it takes to be helpful, to be hopeful about the future.”
When Joseph lost his way in the fields, a man came along and asked, “Mah t’vakeish? What are you looking for?” And Joseph answered, “et achai anochi m’vakeish.” “I am searching for my brothers.” Leonard grew up with one beloved sister, Sybil, and countless brothers. There were his brothers from among the veterans, his brothers from the Masons — Leonard was a third-generation Mason, a Past Master of two lodges – and of course his brothers were here at Holy Blossom Temple.
Leonard and Morris Vigoda, his dear friend (and some say “partner in crime”), were together our Head Ushers. For decades they greeted everyone with a firm handshake and a warm welcome. Every Shabbat. Every Yom Tov. They must have walked miles up and down the aisles of this sanctuary.
For his 80th birthday – some of you may remember — Leonard was called to the Torah for a special aliyah and Rabbi Moscowitz presented a surprising gift, a tallit! Leonard grew up in the era when not a tallit could be found in Holy Blossom’s sanctuary, so this risky gift drew a great laugh from the congregation, most of all from Leonard. He held it up and said: “Oh! What is this?” And when Morris Vigoda saw him in it – even when Mo’s speech was slowed – he looked Leonard up and down and said: “What? Is it Halloween?” Of course, the tallit looked great on him. He looked younger in it somehow. He wore it every Shabbat with pride and today he will be buried in that tallit.
When I first came to Holy Blossom, in 1998, Leonard gave me the grand tour. He skipped from room to room, speaking with such pride in the Temple, its history, the stories behind each sacred objects, each stained glass window. Through the halls he spoke respectfully of generations of rabbis and Temple leadership, memories of Bond Street. His personal history was woven into the fabric of Toronto’s first synagogue. Leonard’s grandparents, Bertha and Abraham Levy, came from New York City in the 1880s.
On the Temple tour seventeen years ago, Leonard’s tone changed altogether when we stopped at the wall of black and white Confirmation Class photos. He pointed class by class, row by row, telling me the accomplishments of some, and also who fell during the war – and where. Whenever Leonard went to the cemetery to mark the Yahrtzeit of a relative, he’d always pay respects to his friends who did not survive the war and to lay a stone at their graves. Leonard knew he was lucky to come home whole.
He served four long years as a bomber pilot. He flew thirty-two missions, including the raid on Dresden, in a Lancaster Bomber. He said he got the job because he was small. When Leonard came home in one piece, his mother, Celia, said, “Come on we’re going to Temple.” Leonard wanted to change out of his uniform, but his mother – who was strong and clear – insisted he come to this sanctuary in his uniform, so they could offer up full prayers of gratitude for God’s protection.
For decades, Leonard spoke to schools across the GTA and beyond to tell the story of service during WWII. In one school interview he explained: “There was a mad man in Europe who was going to destroy the world and kill my people in doing it. I – and all of my friends – could not stand by and let that happen.”
Leonard’s son Andy said of his father: “He taught me how to swim when I was three years old. I held onto his shoulders and he’d dive down under the water. I’d hold on tight and that’s how I learned not to be afraid.” Many of us could say the same – we held onto Leonard and learned not to be afraid.
For The Memory Project, Leonard shared a quote he’d found meaningful: “There is no greater honour than serving your country. There is no greater tragedy than being forgotten. History is not made. History is earned.” “And we lived by that,” Leonard said. “We were earning history for this country and the world.”
Andy reflects: “The Innuit have one hundred words to name the different kinds of snow. The Hawaians have one hundred words to name the different types of waves. We have only one word for love, but my father taught us there are actually infinite types of love.” Leonard’s death marks the end of a era, but we pray it will not an end to the upstanding character he demonstrated. To honour his memory, let us pledge that it will not be an end to the values and virtues he stood for – loyalty, service, optimism, pride in country and congregation, and an infinite number of ways to love.
Every day of his life Leonard enlisted in a mission in search of his brothers. Like Joseph, he heard the call: “L’cha v’esh-la-cha-cha aleichem.” “Come, go out to find your brothers.” “Vayomeir lo.” And Leonard answered each and every time, “Hineini. Here I am.”