Levi Horowitz; guided many as Bostoner Rebbe; at 88

Rabbi Levi Horowitz was photographed in 1966 outside the New England Hasidic Center on Beacon Street in Brookline. Rabbi Levi Horowitz was photographed in 1966 outside the New England Hasidic Center on Beacon Street in Brookline. (Edward F. Carr/ Globe Staff)
By Bryan Marquard
Globe Staff / December 24, 2009

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Over the decades, thousands of college students in Boston were among those drawn to Grand Rabbi Levi Horowitz, seeking guidance from his wisdom and the example he set.

“I try to be a role model to show what it means to live a totally religious life,’’ he told the Globe in 1986.

Known as the Bostoner Rebbe, Rabbi Horowitz was the first American-born, English-speaking Hasidic leader in North America. Warm and charismatic, he was a powerful presence in the lives of followers and a guiding influence for many who merely crossed paths with him in Brookline or Jerusalem, where he spent part of each year until moving there permanently nearly two years ago.

“He didn’t judge a person,’’ said his son Rabbi Naftali Horowitz, who now leads what had been his father’s congregation in Brookline. “He treated every human being with love and care, and gave full attention to their concerns and their problems. He was someone who always went the extra distance to help people, be it for medical care, advice, or problems that they’ve had in their life, and he always prayed on their behalf to God.’’

The rebbe died of heart failure in Shaare Zedek Medical Center in Jerusalem on Dec. 5, and was buried that night in Jerusalem’s Mount of Olives. He was 88.

At Congregation Beth Pinchas on Beacon Street in Brookline, where Rabbi Horowitz moved nearly 50 years ago and directed the New England Hasidic Center, hundreds of families gathered for services, for instruction, and for the sense of community he fostered.

“That was a uniqueness of him,’’ his son said. “He was someone who, if a person was a simple blue collar worker, that blue collar worker was able to connect to him. It was the same if that person was a doctor or a lawyer. If it was someone who was an observant Jew, he was able to connect. If it was someone who wasn’t observant, he was able to connect to that person, too. That was basically his theme, that he was able to connect.’’

The same was true in Har Nof, the Jerusalem neighborhood where Rabbi Horowitz lived for months at a time each year for about 25 years until deciding to stay as age made trips to and from Brookline less tenable. He established a center there in the mid-1980s.

“One felt one was in the presence of a person with immense moral stature,’’ said Nesanel Peterman, who lives in Har Nof and was Rabbi Horowitz’s personal assistant for about 15 years. “One could also feel that you could relate very much to him as a human being. In many respects, that was because he related to every individual he came across as almost the most important person in the world.’’

Along with his legacy as a spiritual leader in Brookline and Har Nof, and for followers who moved elsewhere in the world, Rabbi Horowitz often viewed as perhaps his greatest accomplishment building Rofeh Inter- national, which provides the needy with medical referrals and support. He called his organization Rofeh because it is an acronym for reaching out, furnishing emergency healthcare, and a word for doctor in Hebrew.

For Jews who travel to Boston because of the city’s hospitals, Rofeh International provides, among other things, hospitality, a place to stay and kosher meals.

“Rabbi Horowitz regarded this very much as the jewel in his crown,’’ Peterman said. “His whole life was dedicated to helping others.’’

Still, as Rabbi Horowitz told the Globe in 1995, “we don’t missionize. We show people what we are. There is a saying, which is ‘taste and see.’ ’’

Born in Boston’s West End, Rabbi Horowitz was the son of Grand Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz, the original Boston Rebbe. The family moved to the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, N.Y., where Rabbi Horowitz’s father consolidated a Hasidic residential quarter.

When Rabbi Horowitz was 23, in the mid-1940s, his father sent him to Boston. Settling first in Dorchester, he guided an aged Hasidic community and moved them to Brookline at the beginning of the 1960s.

“It was a way of life that was vanishing in Boston,’’ he told the Globe in 2001. “We wanted to restore this community.’’

From a community dominated by those in their 80s and 90s, Rabbi Horowitz cultivated a following that included college students and Boston’s young professionals who had either parted ways previously with Orthodox Judaism or had never been to such a synagogue.

“Even though I was a son, I was in awe of him,’’ his son said. “He always understood a problem and was able to decipher how to solve the problem. He could figure out how to alleviate someone’s suffering, and when someone had a joyous occasion, he was joyous along with them.’’

Students, lawyers, doctors, and those in Boston’s business community weren’t the only ones who contacted the rebbe. In his Brookline office, a large glass frame on the wall holds letters from presidents including Harry Truman, John F. Kennedy, Richard M. Nixon, Gerald Ford, Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush.

Rabbi Horowitz was married for 59 years to Rebbetzin Rachel (Unger) Horowitz, who died in 2002. He married Judith Volk in 2005.

After Rabbi Horowitz died, a funeral procession began in Jerusalem and hundreds joined for part or all of the journey to the Mount of Olives, where, at his request, he was buried with no eulogies, Peterman said.

“With simple gestures he won people over,’’ Peterman said. “He had a very clear road map in life, to enrich people spiritually and to enable them, through his assistance, to raise themselves spiritually. He wasn’t simply a nice guy, he was very, very firmly bedded, for want of a better word, in Orthodox Judaism, in the Hasidic way of life. And his overwhelming aim was to enable people to develop a closer spiritual relationship with the creator, with God.’’

In addition to his wife and son, Rabbi Horowitz leaves two other sons, Rabbi Pinchas Horowitz of New York City and Rabbi Mayer Horowitz of Jerusalem; two daughters, Rebbetzin Shayne Frankel of New York City and Rebbetzin Toby Geldzahler of Jerusalem; a sister, Rebbetzin Faye Thumim of Brooklyn; many grandchildren and great-grandchildren; and one great-great-grandchild.

A memorial service will be held at 7:30 p.m. Jan. 3 in Congregation Beth Pinchas in Brookline.