Shimon Kraft met Kalman Levine on the first day of second grade when they were carpooling to a new Jewish day school in Kansas City. Even after Levine moved to Los Angeles and then Israel — rarely to return — they remained close friends.
Their friendship remained unbroken even after Kraft divorced Levine's younger sister.
"I was friends with him before I was married to his sister," Kraft explained.
Photos of Levine — who became an Orthodox rabbi and a Torah scholar — show a man with an unruly long gray beard and a black hat, but Kraft remembers him as the All-American boy from the Midwest, athletic and funny, a guy who could listen to nearly any jazz album and name the musicians, smart enough to do pre-calculus in fourth grade and skip fifth grade.
Kraft's thoughts — and those of others in the Jewish community in Los Angeles and beyond — again turned to Levine, 55, this week when he and three other religious scholars were killed in a terrorist attack on a Jerusalem synagogue, where Levine prayed each day,
"He was an adorable little kid who grew up to be a really great human being," Kraft said. "An amazing, amazing man."
Those who knew Levine, who studied religion at USC, remembered him as gentle and humble. "He was a person without malice," said his brother-in-law Jonathan Bein, who lives in Boulder, Colo. "It's more horrific when someone more gentle is taken."
After graduating from high school, Levine spent six months on a kibbutz in Israel and returned to the States and attended USC from 1976 through 1978, with plans of becoming a dentist. That changed when he became the first student in an Orthodox education program for college students established by Rabbi Zvi Block in Valley Village.
"He had extraordinary sensitivity and a tremendous sense of a philosophical appreciation of God, of religion," Block said. "He was special."
With Block's encouragement, Levine, along with Kraft, went to Israel to study. "He was so much fun to be with," Kraft said. "We'd go rock climbing. He was an adventurous, energetic person. He never lost that youthful exuberance."
Levine returned to Southern California, taking classes at Yeshiva University of Los Angeles and Cal State Northridge. Once he received his degree, Kraft said, Levine returned to Israel and taught in a yeshiva, where he advised young men, many of them Americans.
"He didn't need someone to call him 'rabbi,'" said Zev Shub, a former student and now a rabbi in Brooklyn. "He didn't need someone to recognize how knowledgeable he was. He was a real man of God."
Alan Edelman, associate executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City, would visit him in the modest apartment where he lived with his wife and nine children. He also had five grandchildren.
"He didn't care about monetary things," Edelman said. "He cared about spiritual things."
During an interview, Kraft pondered the question of how people could find meaning in his friend's murder.
"He would say when you observe this type of act, you need to increase the force of good in the world. Do something good you wouldn't have done otherwise," he said. "It's the only way we'll defeat the forces of evil."