By Rabbi Dovid Fleischmann
This past Shabbos, Far Rockaway and the Five Towns lost a pillar of the community, a pioneer and promoter of the development of its rich Jewish life. Mrs. Harriet Keilson, beloved wife of noted activist and askan Lloyd Keilson, returned her soul to her maker at the age of 68. Although I, as a son-in-law, am not capable of truly encapsulating her life and achievements in writing, based on the stories heard from her and her children, I will attempt to provide a glimpse of who she was.
Born to her parents Rosa and Jack Bodner, Harriet lived in Washington Heights until she was 11 years old. Her father was a World War II veteran who met her mother while on duty in Italy. Rosa Weiss was one of six girls and one boy who grew up in Fiume, Italy. When war broke out, most of the family fled to Switzerland. Jack and Rosa married in Trieste, Italy shortly after the war, and settled in the U.S. Most of the Weiss siblings followed “Rosie” to these shores, and though the last of the siblings passed on recently, their children and grandchildren remain connected till this day.
During her childhood, Harriet developed a close relationship with her paternal grandmother, Bubby Becky, who lived in her parents’ home. A strong woman with ideals forged in a world lost forever, she conveyed to her offspring a feeling of the Yiddishkeit of the last generation. In those early years, Harriet even shared a bed with her. Later, Harriet attributed her sensitivity and conviction to aspire for spiritual growth to her close connection to her grandmother. She internalized all that she witnessed, and tried to emulate her in many ways.
When Harriet was 11, her family moved to the Far Rockaway community where they joined the Kneseth Israel congregation, now known as the White Shul. At Harriet’s levayah, Rabbi Pelcovitz, shlita, recalled that his daughters were friends with Harriet, and one even celebrated her birthday a few days apart from her. Rabbi Pelcovitz remained closely involved with Harriet and her family, proudly recalling how instrumental he was in the establishment of the home she created with Lloyd, officiating at their wedding in the pavilion outside the shul. He even went so far as to suggest that the home’s ultimate success can be traced to the blessing he imparted to the young couple from the depth and honesty of his heart. The couple cherished their relationship with Rabbi Pelcovitz throughout their marriage; he officiated at their bechor Avi’s wedding as well.
Harriet Bodner attended HILI for eighth grade and high school, catching the eye of a classmate–Lloyd Keilson–who pursued her relentlessly, even winning the approval of her discerning father. In their senior year, the two were yearbook editors. Incorporating HILI as a part of their eternal history, Lloyd proposed to Harriet on the basketball court of their school. (As a fascinating aside, 50 years later, the couple planned and coordinated a reunion for their graduating class on June 6, 2010 at the HILI campus, now home to Yeshiva Darchei Torah.)
In school, Harriet was known as a social and friendly girl, outgoing and lively, a magnet to friends and strangers alike. She was an ardent photographer, developed her own pictures and amassed a roomful of evidence of her memories. Harriet was always on the cutting edge of technology, updating her computer skills as technology advanced. She gave computer classes and sold computer programs from her home. She played on the HILI basketball team and was an avid tennis player. A plaque in her kitchen summed up her sentiment, “Tennis forever, housework whenever.”
After their wedding, the couple settled in Forest Hills as Lloyd participated in the semichah program of Yeshiva University, while attending law school at night. This left the financial development of their new home in the hands of his wife, Harriet. Harriet worked as a computer programmer for Equitable Life Insurance, working to sustain the home and pay the bills to enable her husband to follow his dreams. Lloyd eventually received his rabbinic ordination from his rebbe, Rabbi J.B. Soloveitchik.
The couple moved to Sage Street in Far Rockaway shortly after the birth of their firstborn, Avi, who was followed in succession by brothers Tzvi, Dovi, and Yair. The four boys matured under the keen eye of their mother, who nurtured each one according to his own unique abilities. They displayed extraordinary talent in their musical abilities, and with her encouragement, they even produced numerous albums under the label “Achim.” She was extremely proud of her boys, especially their zemiros at the Shabbos table when they sang in unison, beautifully harmonizing with each other. The boys were followed by a sister, Rachell, named after Harriet’s mother who had passed away just a few years earlier at the age of 52. Harriet was extremely close to her mother and her sudden death left a searing pain in her heart for the rest of her life.
Lloyd and Harriet were among the first to move to their present neighborhood, pioneering the move eastward from Far Rockaway to Lawrence. In those days, Lloyd and the boys had to walk 20 minutes to shul as there was no local neighborhood shul at the time.
As their children grew older, Lloyd became very involved in their school, Yeshiva Darchei Torah. Together with Yisroel Bloom, zt’l, and R’ Mendy Goldberg, he was instrumental in bringing Rabbi Bender to the yeshiva. Though he was simultaneously building his business, which involved long days and nights, he nevertheless undertook many projects and initiatives on behalf of the school, as well as other community affairs. This left Harriet to raise her children virtually on her own. She good-naturedly described her life as being a single parent, referring to her children’s relationship with their father as having a “Shabbos Abba.”
Harriet was also instrumental in the development and endurance of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, the institution that her sons attended and thrived in. As Lloyd was active as chairman of the board for many years, Harriet invested her energies in the Women’s League, founding and running many projects to alleviate the financial stress of the growing institution. She ran a “Silver Show” selling gold and silver, with all proceeds given to the yeshiva, produced the Darchei calendar, and ran the Chinese Auction. Additionally, she sold plants and flowers for Shavuos, using the profit to purchase toys for the preschool.
Life in Lawrence was put on a happy pause in 1988 when the family went on Sabbatical to EretzYisrael and experienced Israeli life. Harriet and Lloyd had purchased an apartment in Har Nof and the two spent a year immersed in Torah, with Lloyd attending shiurim at Aish Hatorah and Harriet participating in various Torah classes as well. Eventually, they bought a home in Bayit V’gan, where they spent almost every yomtov thereafter. They shared their love for EretzYisrael with their children and many started their married life in that very house.
Harriet was proud of her children and their achievements, and appreciated their spouses’ suitability for each one. She was extremely close to each of her children which is evident from the fact that each chose to live within walking distance of her home. She was an integral part of her children and grandchildren’s lives. Her grandchildren meant the world to her, and before falling asleep each night, she would recite their names in age order. Every simcha in the family was a highlight, as she delighted in being surrounded by her children and grandchildren.
Despite her myriad interests and talents, Harriet’s friends and family remember her for her achievements of a different kind. She was known for possessing a lev tov, a good heart, always finding the good in others and her encounters with them. As her son Avi, an accomplished lawyer, relayed at the funeral, his mother “always built up the good qualities we possessed, and minimized the bad.” He described his mother as being his best friend throughout his life, remarking that his long daily commutes to his jobs always featured a lengthy schmooze with his mother. He and other maspidim described her parenting method as chanoch l’na’ar al pi darko, finding ways for each of her children to achieve and excel. The rosh yeshiva of Yeshiva Darchei Torah, Rabbi Bender attributed the success of her children and grandchildren to her input and careful involvement and direction. Rabbi Bender noted that Harriet and Lloyd initiated and facilitated the Benders’ move to Far Rockaway, recalling how Harriet even looked at their present home together with his wife when they were in need of a new home. Her grandson, Shlomo Keilson, a student in Yeshiva Heichal Dovid, YDT, representing the grandchildren, described his grandmother’s ayin tovah, always seeing the positive in others, her experiences, and every situation.
Harriet’s sincerity and honesty in her avodasHashem was well known to her family and friends. Her day didn’t start before she davened slowly, using a large siddur and a shtender, and didn’t end before she recited KriasShemaal ha’mittah and HaMapil. She recited Asher Yatzar with great concentration. Her days were filled with recognition of Hashem’s hand in her life and in nature. She relished discussing with her children and grandchildren the beauty of the world around her, initiating them in their quest to find yad Hashem in their lives. Although she suffered from numerous medical conditions which required constant monitoring, she always took note of all she had to be thankful for. Harriet enjoyed attending and listening to shiurim from local rabbanim, as well as shiurim by Esther Wein. But most of all, she enjoyed hearing her son Dovi’s vaadim, which he delivered and recorded in Yeshiva Darchei Torah where he serves as mashgiach. It gave her immense pride to see her son surrounded by high school boys soaking in his words of Torah and mussar. At the levayah, Rabbi Bender attributed Dovi’s emunah and tzidkus to the lessons he imbibed from his mother. A friend whom she noticed reading secular novels was admonished with her classic soft and eidel way. This woman took heart and those words were an impetus to her spiritual growth. She now runs her own seminary and attributes her achievements to those words long ago.
Harriet was a close friend to many, easy to talk to, always offering a sympathetic ear or a word of advice to her relatives and friends. Her cousin Sima Krischer relates that although Harriet was “just” a cousin, she served the roles of mother, sister, and friend. Harriet shared a special relationship with each of her grandchildren, acting as Bubby as well as friend. She patiently spoke to each on their own level, reveling in their wit and personality as they grew older.
Harriet was diagnosed with cancer in August 2013. Her son Yair, by now a doctor of oncology, headed the charge as she fought the disease assisted by Drs. Carrey, Dottino, Bashevkin, and Hirschfeld. Although she confronted the debilitating treatments with a heart full of faith, the illness recurred the next summer. Harriet accepted the news with her well known grace and belief. Instead of questioning her fate, she recognized all the good Hashem provided and showered her with throughout her life.
During her last weeks, as she was confined to her bed, her children surrounded her, soothing her as they sang songs at her request. Amazingly, she joined them in song from amidst her delirious state, singing the words Borchi Nafshi Es Hashem and Ein Anachnu Maspikim L’hodos Lecha Hashem. After saying Amen to her daughter Rachell’s Birchos HaShachar, on Shabbos July 11, she took leave of her family encircled by the singing children she was so proud of. At the moment of yetzias neshamah, her children cried “ShemaYisrael” and “Hashem hu ha’Elokim” escorting her to the next world with purity and holiness.
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During the period of her illness, my mother-in-law worried about her legacy, afraid that her children and grandchildren would eventually forget her. Her impression on her family is deep and eternal and there is no need for her to have worried about its endurance. Still, I’d like to conclude this article with a story that my mother-in-law told many times. It describes how the Keilsons first got involved with Yeshiva Darchei Torah, and it is a testament to her conviction and its impact on the family’s destiny.
My in-laws had not been planning to enroll their children in the fledgling new school in the neighborhood. Their background and upbringing would have steered them to some other local institution. One day, my mother-in-law walked through the halls of that new yeshiva and heard the children singing with their rebbe, joyously pronouncing the words and sounds of the aleph-beis. Hearing their sweet voices, she knew she wanted her children to attend that yeshiva, Yeshiva Darchei Torah.
We might say that the levayah, held in the study halls of that yeshiva, was the closing of a circle. Harriet’s vision lives on. One can come any day of the year to those halls and hear the same aleph-beis being sung by the rebbe, with the same joy, the same exuberance. One can come any day and observe the beismidrash packed with young men ignoring the frivolities of the outside world, focusing on the words of Hashem, discussing and arguing intently while joyously singing the words of Torah. But nowadays, among those men and boys are her own grandchildren. And chief among those rebbeim who mold young boys to Torah true men is the mashgiach, her son Dovi. Wherever life will take her progeny, the legacy of their matriarch will lead them in the path she chose for them that fateful morning.
Harriet Keilson, a’h, is survived by her loving husband Lloyd, her brother Allan Bodner of Oceanside, her sister Miriam Chait of Far Rockaway, and her children Avi, Tzvi, Dovi, Yair, Rachell (Fleischmann) and their spouses. May her legacy be a light for them forever.