12 Jan REMEMBERING RABBI YEHUDA KELEMER ZT”L
Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer He was my rabbi, my teacher, my guide and, for a few minutes many years ago, my brother. With extraordinary knowledge of Torah, a passion for teaching, boundless energy and chesed that was simply beyond belief, he transformed the Young Israel of West Hempstead. With a gentle demeanor rooted in humility and a disarming sense of humor, he nurtured a sense of unity among the Jews of West Hempstead. He won the respect and admiration of rabbinic colleagues in town and he became their rabbi, too. He touched the hearts, the minds and, yes, the souls of Jews who were his congregants. His congregants were not just the members of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. They were our parents, grandparents, siblings and friends. They were members of the other shuls in town and of previous congregations, particularly the Young Israel of Brookline, just outside Boston. He was a beloved figure in American Orthodox life. With encyclopedic knowledge of Torah, Tanach, Talmud and Jewish law, he could have been a rosh yeshiva anywhere in the world. But his true calling was serving as a pulpit rabbi. He did it for a long time – with virtually no enemies or detractors. He brought the rebbe – talmid relationship from the yeshiva to a large congregation. He was there for people in ways that are truly unique. Every pulpit rabbi serves as a counselor, a psychologist and social worker wrapped together but he took this calling to new dimensions. Rabbi Kelemer rejoiced at your simcha, visited you when you were sick, helped you overcome all sorts of issues, and supported you when you suffered a loss. He did it for me and thousands of others. He did it in ways that went well beyond what anyone would expect from a rabbi – or from your closest friends. The stories are legendary. The chesed is indescribable. How many rabbis would drive halfway across the country to pay a shiva call? How many rabbis would leave their shul after the Kol Nidrei service and visit sick patients? How many rabbis call a widow week after week to wish her a good Shabbos and find out how she’s doing? How many rabbis make two or three stops to visit people after shul Friday night – before heading home to the seudah with his family? For Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, it was all routine. His work ethic reflected his love of learning, his dedication to his congregation, his concern for people – and his ability to function with very little sleep. That love of learning extended to secular subjects. His library ranged from books about the philosopher Friedrich Nietsche to books on astronomy and astrophysics. If you had a question or needed to talk with him, Rabbi Kelemer would ask how late he could call you. He would schedule meetings with people at 11 p.m. and later. He would learn with people later than that. And he would be back at shul bright and early the next morning. But if you had a personal or family crisis, he was there for you. Your family came before his family. Your needs came before his needs. In many ways, Rabbi Kelemer changed my life. He was my spiritual guide and I was blessed to become close to him and his family by helping them with telecom issues and “guiding” them when they traveled. Long before the world had Waze, the Kelemer family and particularly the rabbi had “Jayz.” The rabbi knew how to get from place to place in a Gemorah. I knew how to get from place to place on the roadways of the New York metropolitan area and well beyond. I knew about answering machines. The rabbi knew about answering halachic questions. I knew how to find information on the world wide web. Rabbi Kelemer knew where to find a concept – almost any concept — in the vast sea of Torah literature. I needed a computer. The rabbi’s mind was like a computer. “The rabbi was a walking shas,” recalls Avi Hauptman, who studied with the rabbi at the Telshe Yeshiva in Cleveland. In his humility, the rabbi wouldn’t drive new cars – or even gently used ones. Shul members once raised funds and bought him a new car. He refused to accept it, had the car sold with the money going to tzedakah. He didn’t want congregants experiencing financial challenges to see that he was driving a fancier car than they were. So he drove what we’ll diplomatically call dependable old cars. He did a lot of driving. Flying was painful, so he avoided it. And when he ran into a problem, the “Jayz” traffic information service went to work on his behalf. There were trips to Boston to see former congregants. Shiva visits to Florida, Chicago and Toronto. Kosher supervision trips to Oneida, which is midway between Utica and Syracuse in Upstate New York. Once, he traveled by train from New York to Florida to attend a grandson’s graduation. The train was late, so the rabbi finished the trip in a taxi. He spent but a few minutes with his grandson before heading back to New York because there was a wedding there the next day. It was one of the few times the rabbi flew. He simply had no choice. The shiva visit trip to Toronto became part of local lore. He drove to the border near Buffalo and Canadian authorities wouldn’t let him bring his “dependable old car” into the country. What did he do? Rabbi Kelemer called someone he knew in Toronto, arranged to be picked up at the border (it’s 95 miles away), spent some time with the family, got a ride back to the border and drove home. This kind of chesed was an integral part of his devotion to Torah. So were his connections. He was connected to rabbis all over the world who often called him with questions they couldn’t answer or simply to talk with him “in learning.” There were rabbis from other synagogues, rabbis from leading yeshivas and rabbis from Chassidic communities. When people in West Hempstead needed special brachas, he in turn reached out to leading rabbis in Israel. He was connected to people who met him only once and people who studied with him week after week. He could connect with warmth. He could connect with a hug. He could connect with his intimate knowledge of Torah. As community founder Rabbi Meyer Fendel put it in a eulogy read at the funeral, Rabbi Kelemer built upon the foundation that was in place when he came to West Hempstead. He maintained community customs but created a culture that encouraged growth. A few months after he arrived, the shul broke ground on its new building. New members led to new minyanim, new shiurim, new kosher establishments. Yachad, the OU program for the developmentally disabled, had its first Shabbaton in West Hempstead. A daf yomi shiur got underway in 1989 and a few years later, Shabbos minyanim were established at the HANC Early Childhood Center, about a mile from the main shul. The youth program expanded. And study groups met night after night in the Beis Medresh. He didn’t plan any of this but he was the inspiration for it all. And when new shuls formed in the neighborhood, he embraced them. He inspired people like me to study Talmud and when we studied with him, the insights and understanding boggled the mind. I don’t remember whether we were studying Daf Yomi or Hilchos Shabbos, but we ended up discussing whether one could ride in an elevator programmed to stop on every floor on Shabbos. He came to shiur with charts he made showing in detail how elevators work. It was a lesson in electrical engineering – from a rabbi no less. It was unforgettable. He even became my brother – at least for a few minutes. About a year after Rabbi Kelemer came to West Hempstead, my mother was hospitalized with Legionnaire’s Disease. I was sitting in her hospital room late one night when a nurse came into the room and said that my brother was here to see me. “I don’t have a brother,” I told the nurse. Indeed, my brother turned out to be the rabbi. It was my introduction to “brotherly love,” Rabbi Kelemer style. It was a scene that played out for years and years. As his son Shmuel Dovid put it at the funeral, everyone else’s needs were most important. He never put himself first. “He had a tremendous neshamah, like an angel. His feet weren’t on the ground. He was floating above us.” Jay Kaplowitz, a retired public relations professional and professor, has lived in West Hempstead for 46 years.