By Rabbi Eli Slomnicki
Menahel/Principal, HANC High School
Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l, was my rav since childhood. He was the rav for five generations of my family, offering guidance to my grandparents and all the way down to my great-niece. We are one of countless West Hempstead families whose lives have been molded by his angelic leadership.
While taking the NCYI training course for rabbanim, I asked the director of the program why Rav Kelemer was not included in the slate of esteemed shul rabbis who presented. He replied, “Rabbi Kelemer’s anivus (humility) precludes him from saying yes to my offers.”
Juxtapose the above with a WhatsApp message sent to YU semichah students encouraging them, “Chevra, I don’t know how many of you knew Rav Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l, but particularly for those going into rabbanus, pay careful attention to the stories you hear about him in the coming days.”
I imagine that the scores of Young Israel of West Hempstead (YIWH) alumni who have entered chinuch and rabbanus shared the same feeling of dissonance that I had as I considered my venture into the sacred mission of avodas ha’kodesh. The drive to give to the community the way Rav Kelemer did for us, knowing we could not meet the standard that our rav set for us.
The myriad aspects of Rabbi Kelemer’s legacy are difficult to capture, especially with much of it relegated to the nistar, the hidden. However, as I begin to absorb Rabbi Kelemer’s influence on me, my family, and my efforts on behalf of the tzibbur, I find myself reflecting on the following five ideas.
Preaching was not part of Rabbi Kelemer’s way. He simply set an example and we followed. I find it hard to recall a derashah that contained mussar or rebuke. His derashos spoke to the beauty of values, especially inclusivity. Indeed, his very brief remarks at his installation were prophetic. He remarked that his was the shortest of the 14 speeches that preceded it. He concluded by noting that he begins his tenure with אמור מעט and then asked the tzibbur to bless him with the ability of עשה הרבה. How prophetic!
Fidelity to mesorah and minhag. As was relayed from the many hespedim, Rabbi Kelemer often deflected psak when it related to minhag and mesorah, encouraging the one asking the she’eilah to follow the minhag of their family, community, or shul. Rabbi Fendel, a YIWH alumnus and son of Rabbi Mayer Fendel, a previous rav of YIWH, shared the following anecdote at the levayah. During Rav Kelemer’s first year at YIWH, he called Rabbi Fendel to ask what the minhag was regarding the choice of selichos at YIWH. A seemingly minor matter, but the preservation of the minhagim was paramount to Rav Kelemer.
Chinuch that is truly child-centered. Like HANC, the community yeshiva of West Hempstead, Rav Kelemer understood that education is about the individual needs of a student. Chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko was not a slogan or just a pasuk to Rabbi Kelemer; it was a guiding principle. His personal and professional counsel to me always reflected that value. It is noteworthy that Rav Kelemer was the rav at the very first Yachad Shabbaton, a reflection of his understanding that each person, irrespective of his or her station in life, deserves a place in our community. And I must recall how every she’eilah asked during a shiur, regardless of its merits or lack thereof, was greeted with the utmost kavod, often twisted and reformulated to make the questioner feel golden. “That’s that kasha of R’ Akiva Eiger” was so often the response.
Humor. Rav Kelemer was legendary for his humor. He used it in his derashos, with his famous Shemini shel Pesach announcement: “Western Beef … Everything but—” to which the whole kehillah in unison exclaimed, “The Beef!” as he listed which stores one could immediately purchase chametz from that evening. Going back to his installation and the 14 speeches that preceded his remarks, Rav Kelemer, a master of gematria, calculated that 14 was the numerical equivalent of יד, but it was also the gematria of די, enough, which he emphatically proclaimed. He was able to inject and receive humor at just the right personal moments. I have vivid memories of how he would trade quips, anecdotes, and jokes with my father, a’h, understanding how to connect with people.
Expressing joy. In the past few years, I recall hearing Rav Kelemer teach us that a חסיד is one who has אבלו בלבו וצהלה בפניו, pain in his heart, yet joy upon his face. Even though I only intermittently visited YIWH in recent years, I believe I heard Rav Kelemer quote this no less than five times! It struck me each time. He himself carried the burdens of so many, yet always had that glowing smile, encouraging word, and positivity for all around him. A true חסיד! Indeed, he carried the mesorah of his alte zeidy, the Ba’al Shem Tov. In particular, I recall at my vort, when he offered his divrei berachah to me and my kallah, Elissa, he wished my mother a special mazal tov, expressing that she deserved this simcha given the many traumas of her life. I thought then how sensitive it was of him to understand not only the depth of my mother’s pain, but that it was majestic how he uplifted her knowing that she carries all that. But as I matured and began to realize a bit more about Rabbi Kelemer and his life, I understood that Rabbi Kelemer was not only teaching us אבלו בלבו וצהלה בפניו, but modeling it in the most profound way.
My family and I are broken. Our West Hempstead community—and beyond—is left without its leader. Our yeshiva, HANC, is forever indebted to the hadrachah that Rabbi Kelemer offered us. We all feel alone without Rav Kelemer’s regal guidance.