Moses Levy (c.1795-1865) was an uncompromising champion of religious tradition in the prolonged confrontation between tradition and modernity in the Jewish community of Denmark.
Levy was the son of Heyman Levy Koch, a wealthy stockbroker, who had come to Copenhagen from Amsterdam in 1790, to marry Pauline (Perle) Meyer, whose grandfather Isac Jacob Moisling had arrived in Copenhagen in 1739. Moses Levy married Frederikke Nathan, whose family had settled in Nakskov in 1692, as tobacco spinners. To marry their only child, Helene, Moses Levy brought to Copenhagen Joseph Perlstein, a student from the yeshiva of Rabbi Jacob Ettlinger in Altona.
Moses was a successful businessman. Starting as a grocer, he later became an authorized agent for the State Lottery. Profits were invested in real estate, and he accumulated numerous properties in the city. Growing up at a time of pervasive assimilation and widespread conversions, Moses was deeply concerned for the survival of religious Jewish life in Denmark – and for the continuation of his own family. He practiced strict Orthodoxy and broke off relationships with his assimilating friends and relatives. While trying to weaken the influence of the radical elements in the community, he waged a life-long struggle against the Chief Rabbi, Dr. Abraham Wolff, whom he mistrusted deeply, fearing that Wolff would reform the service in the large new Krystalgade synagogue. He and his father addressed two letters to the king, asking for his help in preventing changes in the prayers and traditional ritual. In a series of articles in the weekly Politivennen, he also criticizes the differentiation between rich and poor members within the community and decries the barren formalism of the service in the central synagogue, which he only attended once, at the dedication ceremony, interrupting at every sign of change in the service.
In 1840, he moved into 5 Læderstræde, and after purchasing the whole building, he opened a family synagogue with a small group of followers. In the same hall, his grandfather’s brother had built a synagogue in 1800. Moses Levy was flagrantly disregarding the authorities’ demand that all the many private synagogues desist with the opening of the central synagogue in 1833. Indeed, from 1845 until 1910, these were the only two synagogues in Copenhagen: the one in Krystalgade and the “Koch’ske Synagogue” in Læderstræde.
In his will, Moses Levy (and Frederikke) left their large estate to their daughter and son-in-law. However the house at 5 Læderstræde, with the synagogue, was to be preserved for future generations of the family, in order to maintain strictly orthodox tradition, independently of the main community. This synagogue remained in daily use (except between 1943-45) until 1986, when it was sold. Frederikke died in Copenhagen in 1865 and Moses died later the same year during a visit to Altona. In the list of Altona burials, he is registered as Moshe Koch.
The article is excerpted from the book “Courtyards of Copenhagen” – on Georg Cohn and his forebears in Denmark. Moses Levy was Dr. Cohn’s great-grandfather.