By Rabbi Pesach Schmerling
The Far Rockaway/Lawrence community and the Chabad Lubavitch movement lost a great man last week when Reb Yechiel Michel ben Reb Chaim Shneur Zalman HaLevi Kramer a’h, known to all as Milton, passed away. He merited to live into his hundredth year, and it certainly was a life filled with living days.
The Kramer family was instrumental in establishing Agudas Chasidei Chabad in the early 1920s. When the sixth Chabad Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, zt’l, was imprisoned by the Soviet regime in 1927, international pressure was exerted on the Soviet regime to release the Rebbe. Joining these efforts was Agudas Chasidei Chabad.
Milton’s grandfather, Reb Moshe Eliezer (Morris L.), zt’l, passed away in 1925 at the age of 62, and Milton’s father, Reb Chaim Shneur Zalman (Hyman), zt’l, took his place and stood at the helm of this illustrious organization. It was he who, in this capacity, signed the advertisements that were placed in newspapers pressuring the Soviet regime to release the Rebbe.
Milton joined various farbrengens held at Chabad of Far Rockaway throughout the year for the past 13 years, but said he felt like a real “mechutan” and “b’aal simcha” at the 12th of Tammuz farbrengen, commemorating the day Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok was finally released, where he would share his various recollections from that time, as well as other memories].
A little over two years later, the Kramer family helped coordinate the historic visit of the Rebbe to the United States. The Kramers hosted a melaveh malkah for the Rebbe at their home in New York. Young Milton sang a solo for the Rebbe, and the Kramers had the foresight to eternalize this on film. While Milton did not recall which niggun he sang for the Rebbe on that occasion, the event left a strong impression on him, and he still got excited talking about it almost nine decades later.
Milton’s father, Hyman, accompanied the Rebbe to the White House, where they met with President Hoover, to whom the Rebbe expressed his thanks for the assistance of the American government in securing the release of the Rebbe from Soviet imprisonment.
The Rebbe returned to Europe after staying in the United States for close to a year, and went on to build the Chabad Lubavitch movement in Latvia and Poland until World War II broke out and the Rebbe was trapped in Nazi-occupied Warsaw. A tremendous rescue effort was launched by Agudas Chasidei Chabad. The Kramer brothers, Sam, Hyman, and Abe, left no stone unturned rallying political figures, philanthropists and statesmen to help rescue the Rebbe and his family. With the aid of the U.S. State Department, some high-level German officials, the Latvian government, and others, the Rebbe was finally allowed to leave Warsaw and after many tribulations arrived in New York on the 9th of Adar II 5700 (1940).
Considering the close connection the family had with the Rebbe, it comes as no surprise that when Milton enlisted in the U.S. Army Air Corps at the end of 1941, he went to seek the blessing of Rebbe Yosef Yitzchok before being inducted in January 1942. The Rebbe told him that although he might not always be able to don tefillin, he should always make sure to keep them with him, and blessed him with long life.
The only Jew in his squadron in the Air Force, Milton behaved like a proud Jew and didn’t allow some of the other servicemen, who mocked his adherence to Torah and mitzvos, to intimidate him. He shared that later on, in the trenches, while being attacked by the enemies, these same soldiers called out to him to “strap on his boxes” and pray to G-d! His presence there was certainly a huge kiddush Hashem.
Milton was a role model and a living example of a life lived to its fullest, never losing focus on the most important aspect of life, serving Hashem. Learning Torah and communal work of all different variations were the true mainstays of his life. Besides for his involvement in many local community organizations and institutions, he also served on the board of NCFJE for many decades with great devotion.
A short while after this past Pesach, I met Milton at Costco. Looking into his shopping cart I saw it was filled with a few large containers of coffee, sugar, etc. He explained that he was shopping for the daf yomi chaburah he attends! I have known Milton for the past 13 years, and was always inspired by him, but I would have never imagined that at 99 years old he would drive himself to Costco to purchase and bring these items for the chaburah. He could have sponsored these and asked anyone in the chaburah, all younger than him by many years, to pick them up on their next trip to Costco. The amazing thing was that such a thought didn’t even occur to him, as he did not see any reason why he shouldn’t do this himself!
This anecdote is also a reflection of his excitement and love for Torah learning in general. Our sages tell us that Torah returns to dwell by its hosts over generations. Milton’s grandfather, Moshe Eliezer, z’l, would work at his cutting table, laying out and marking fabric, with a Gemara open in front of him, learning as he worked. This was the atmosphere in which Milton grew up, and he himself leaves behind this legacy for his descendants and the entire community.
Milton was overflowing with joi de vivre to a contagious degree. He had a great sense of humor and always had a witty thought to share. For many years he had the custom to lein the Torah on Shvi’i shel Pesach in honor of his birthday. When I asked how the leining went after his past birthday, he was quick to respond with a chuckle, “They said it was OK but hope that next year (his 100th birthday) there should be some improvement.” It is hard to fathom that his life on earth has come to an end, but his memory will be forever etched in the minds and hearts of everyone who knew him.
On a more personal note, in 1991, at an encounter with the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Milton proudly introduced his daughter and granddaughter to the Rebbe, referring to the baby granddaughter as a fifth-generation supporter of Lubavitch. The Rebbe told him to bless his offspring not to be merely supporters, but active members of Lubavitch. Milton saw his role exactly like that, as an active member.
When I moved to Far Rockaway to open our Chabad house, Milton made sure to immediately come over to introduce himself to me and coordinated a generous donation as seed money to help establish “Chabad of Far Rockaway.” Thus began a personal relationship with my family and me that lasted all the years.
May he be a guter beter for his family and community, and may his legacy live on in all those who have been touched by him.
May Hashem comfort his wife, Rita, sons Daniel and Jonathan, daughter Ellen, and their families.