By David Feder
This past erev Shabbos, the West Hempstead community and Klal Yisrael at large lost a tremendous talmid chacham and tzaddik, HaRav Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l.
I would like to share some of Rav Kelemer’s words of Torah as a small way to illustrate the greatness of the man and the depth of our loss.
In Parashas Vayeira, when the malachim tell Avraham that Sarah will finally have a child, they say, “והנה בן לשרה אשתך.” This is in contrast to the haftarah where the prophet Elisha tells the Shunamite woman: “כעת חיה את חובקת בן.” (“In a year from now you will be embracing a child.”) Why doesn’t Elisha also just say, “You will have a child?” What is the meaning of the dramatic characterization that she will be “cradling” a baby?
Rabbi Kelemer explained that in Parashas Vayeira, these were angels, not human beings, bringing the message, and therefore they could not comprehend what it means to have a child. But regarding the Shunamite woman, Elisha, while a prophet, was a human with human feelings. He understood her pain, and so when he gave her the good news he expressed it in sympathetic, comforting language. “You will cradle your baby in your arms and hold him tight as you care for him.” An angel cannot transmit this compassion, only a fellow human being.
Anyone who knew our rabbi was familiar with his incredible compassion and sensitivity. He lived by these words. Rabbi Kelemer, zt’l, “cradled” each person who came to him for help and advice like a mother would her child. Everyone felt a personal connection to him.
One year during the Three Weeks he posed a question: Why do we refrain from making the berachah of Shehecheyanu during this time? As always, he proceeded to give over a profound and learned explanation so powerful that I can still say it over, almost verbatim, to this day.
He said that during this time of mourning for the destruction of our two Batei Mikdash we need to realize that this is not our natural way of existence. As a nation, we cannot accept our current situation without the Beis HaMikdash as status quo. It’s not the way things should be.
Therefore, during this time, we do not have the presence of mind needed to recite Shehecheyanu with simcha.
As a proof to this theory he brought a Rebbe Akiva Eiger in Shulchan Aruch (O.C. siman 223) about the following halachah: If a father dies and leaves his son a large inheritance, the son makes the berachah of Shehecheyanu. What about if a son dies, R’l, and leaves his father a large inheritance? Although the father is left with a sizable inheritance from his son, he is nonetheless bereft of his child. Would the mourning man say a Shehecheyanu on this sadly acquired yet tremendous newfound fortune? R’ Akiva Eiger answers no! He explains, based on a Gemara in Bava Basra, that although the father has now gained a large sum of money, the natural life cycle has been broken. Children are supposed to inherit from their parents, not vice versa. There is no greater tragedy than a parent burying a child, and, therefore, no matter how great the financial windfall, no berachah is recited. Rabbi Kelemer used this as a proof to his premise, saying that there is no greater national tragedy for Klal Yisrael than the loss of the Beis HaMikdash. The natural cycle is broken. The Jewish nation without a Beis HaMikdash is akin to parents left without their child.
For so many of us, hundreds of families and thousands of individuals, we never imagined an existence without our revered rav. He was our Beis HaMikdash, our connection to Hashem on this earth. We cannot imagine our community without his shiurim, leadership, and unparalleled concern for each and every one of us. No matter what life threw at us, Rabbi Kelemer was a calm and guiding presence in our midst who had the siyatta d’Shmaya and heavenly wisdom to navigate any storm. As a gentle giant in Torah and chesed, he carried us all on his shoulders.
Senator Todd Kaminsky remarked, “Rabbi Kelemer was the definition of a mensch, who always put the needs of others above himself. We will all miss his humility, piety, and dedication, but the legacy he left of community leadership will continue to live on for generations to come. His memory should be a blessing for us all.”
Baruch Dayan ha’emes—Blessed is He who has taken from us what we can never replace. Woe to us who are bereft of our rav. May Hashem provide us with strength, renew us, and sustain us (שׁהחינו וקימנו), as we learn to navigate by the light left behind by our mara d’asra, HaGaon HaRav Yehuda ben Dov Ber, zt’l.
Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l: A Gentle Tzaddik Who Built A Vibrant Community
By Shabsie Saphirstein
Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt’l, is credited with leading the West Hempstead community to flourish over the past number of decades, assuming the role of mara d’asra of the Young Israel of West Hempstead in 1983. Rabbi Kelemer had been ill for the past number of weeks, and his petirah on Friday, January 8, at age 74, was a shock to the community.
Rabbi Kelemer began his rabbinic journey in Switzerland and later served as rabbi of the Young Israel of Brookline, where Bostonians would often visit to ask halachic queries. As a young prodigy, Rabbi Kelemer developed a deep bond with his rosh yeshiva, Rav Mordechai Gifter, zt’l, during his time in Cleveland’s Telshe Yeshiva. Later in life he published a multitude of Torah texts and was consulted for guidance in the complexities of kashrus. Also notably, Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, zt’l, and Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, zt’l, would send questions to the desk of Rabbi Kelemer.
Over his career, Rabbi Kelemer, a talmid of Rav Chaim Shmulevitz, zt’l, of the famed Mirrer Yeshiva, amassed a kehillah of 700 families, joining the ranks of the fastest-growing Orthodox communities in the United States, attracting Yidden from well beyond the tri-state region. But Rabbi Kelemer, in his humility, viewed himself as just another community member, though he was ultimately much more. The rav was known to be reserved with a humble persona; yet, he had an unmatched vibrancy that enabled him to lead his congregation with intense passion. This energy led to varied programming in the shul for children, adults, and the growing senior population of the neighborhood. The rav had a special place to include newly-marrieds who joined the community, with high hopes that they would go on to raise Torah-observant families.
Shortly after assuming the role of rav of West Hempstead’s Young Israel, Rabbi Kelemer was at the forefront of the creation of the Orthodox Union’s Yachad, where developmentally challenged youth are given a chance to shine in the mainstream Jewish world. His Young Israel set the precedent for shuls around the world to call disabled adults to the bimah for an aliyah and to deliver Torah sermons.
Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of the Chazaq organization, said, “Rabbi Kelemer, zt’l, was the cherished uncle of our rosh ha’yeshiva, HaGaon Rav Aharon Walkin, zt’l, who was niftar several months ago.” Rabbi Meirov also pointed out that, “Many West Hempstead families find their start in Kew Gardens Hills. Rabbi Kelemer has long been a force in creating the unique opportunity for young Jewish families to settle and prosper. Each day I see his efforts sparkle in our events coordinator, Robbie Aboff, a member of his kehillah. May his legacy, and that of Rav Walkin, be a merit for all those they motivated in Torah and Judaism.”
Rabbi Simcha Hopkovitz, rav of the Young Israel of Hewlett and a maggid shiur in Yeshivas Toras Halacha in Kew Gardens Hills, reflected, “Rabbi Kelemer was a formidable scholar and kind gentleman. As busy as he was, he always had time for anyone and everyone. His close to 40 years in West Hempstead proved pivotal in the growth of Orthodox Jewish life on Long Island.”
Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, at the helm of Beis HaKnesses of North Woodmere, added, “Rav Kelemer, zt’l, was a tzaddik whose Torah greatness was concealed only by his extreme humility and gentle nature. The rare community rabbi was universally revered.”
The rav’s father-in-law, HaRav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, zt’l, was the son of the Beis Aharon and helped saved thousands during the Shoah, and his mother-in-law, Rebbetzin Tzivia Walkin, a’h, was a close family friend of the Chofetz Chaim. Rabbi Kelemer is mourned by his beloved Rebbetzin Ruchie, his extended family, and all the Torah generations he influenced and inspired. Yehi zichro baruch.
Personal accounts can be relayed to the family via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. The levayah can be viewed at https://livestream.com/accounts/17077440/events/9477510/videos/215834983.
Shabsie Saphirstein is a freelance feature content writer covering topics of Jewish interest, current events, local politics, and international happenings. He can be reached at email@example.com.