The Jewish world lost a bright light, a man who was accessible to anyone who called for his guidance – in his immediate community and far beyond. Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, 74, died on Friday and expressions of sorrow poured in quickly. He defined West Hempstead as it welcomed thousands of new residents. Common questions of kashrus in the kitchen were answered with a personal visit by Rabbi Kelemer, which in turn developed into meaningful relationships that fostered spiritual and personal growth.
“Upon moving in, we asked the rabbi to come to our house to answer a number of kashrus questions,” said Owen Rumelt, a past president of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. “As he was leaving, Rabbi Kelemer asked if we had eaten lunch, given we were so busy with moving in. He kindly offered to put in an order for us at Hunki’s since he was stopping there next. We thanked him for his offer to do so after he assured us that he was not making a separate stop on our behalf. When I went to pick up and pay for the order, the counterman told us that it had already been paid for.”
Ann Koffsky spoke of Rabbi Kelemer’s respect for individuals and his personal touch. “He would show up at hospitals on Shabbos, and answer calls at midnight. If a child did not receive candy in shul, the rabbi would come to the child’s home with the candy. When I needed wisdom concerning a difficult situation, Rabbi Kelemer was wise beyond humanity. He was meaningful.”
Rabbi Kelemer was appointed as mara d’asra of the Young Israel of West Hempstead in 1983 in a ceremony where his ability to pasken and personal reputation were extolled by community leaders. Prior to this, he had the pulpit at the Young Israel of Brookline, where Rav Yosef Ber Soloveitchik lived for part of the year. He often referred people to Rabbi Kelemer, recognizing his ability to address complex halachic issues. His qualifications were in his education and family.
Rabbi Kelemer learned at age 15 in the Telz Yeshiva as a chavrusa of Rosh Yeshiva Rav Mordechai Gifter. He received s’michah from Rav Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz of the Mir Yeshiva in Jerusalem. His father Beryl was a chazan in Los Angeles and a ninth-generation descendant of the Baal Shem Tov. His father-in-law, Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, the Lukatcher Rav, was a leading talmid of the Chofetz Chaim.
“My wife is from West Hempstead, and I’ve seen how Rabbi Kelemer greeted every member of his shul on Shabbos,” said Rabbi Elan Segelman of Kehilas Torah Temimah in Queens. “One man needed to speak with him urgently and Rabbi Kelemer said that they could speak anytime, even midnight or three in the morning. I asked him some of the most difficult and terrifying sh’eilos because I knew that he could carry them on his shoulders.”
Each Simchas Torah, Rabbi Kelemer danced with his congregants and then continued north on Hempstead Avenue to celebrate with other shuls. “He was our rabbi – ateres rosheinu, the crown of our community,” said Rabbi Elon Soniker of Anshei Shalom. “Everything would stop when he would come in and it was a joy. His greatness and righteousness. A towering individual in all areas with a heart of gold. He was with you and he made time for everybody. He was the most influential person to live in West Hempstead concerning its development and growth.”
Bais Torah U’Tefilah is the youngest synagogue on Hempstead Avenue, and they also looked to Rabbi Kelemer for halachic guidance and personal inspiration. “He would dance with us. I used to escort him to the next shul but he didn’t want me to; he said that he’d then have to escort me back,” said Matt Avigdor Saunders, a gabbai at BTU. “Even with a walker, he’d come and dance with us. During this walk, one man said to his son, ‘I’d like my son to meet a tzadik,’ and Rabbi Kelemer said, ‘your father is a tzadik.’ He did not want any kavod. He’d say not to speak to him in the third person.”
In late 2017, a reckless driver struck Rabbi Kelemer, but even with his walker, he continued on his Simchas Torah route and other public appearances. Sharona Beck was surprised to see Rabbi Kelemer on the Brooklyn Bridge last January in a march against anti-Semitism. “He did not let anything stop him. I told him that he didn’t have to be there, but he replied, ‘That’s not what my parents taught me.’”
“He was a rabbi’s rabbi. No matter what you said to him – when you said something wonderful to him, he’d say something wonderful about you,” Beck said.
Towards each individual, he offered not only compliments, but also a lesson. “Rabbi Kelemer would always stop my kids in shul and offer them candy,” David Zurndorfer said. “But before he gave it to them, he always reminded them never to take candy from a stranger and to always ask their parents if they are allowed to have it. He was such a sweet person and role model for us all.”
At the funeral on Sunday, the Young Israel of West Hempstead’s Rabbi Josh Goller expressed gratitude for the opportunity to experience his exemplary qualities. “We’ll never fully understand how much chesed he really did. In his unmatched humility, he never allowed us to recognize his greatness,” he said. “There was nobody who thought through an issue with more consideration than Rabbi Kelemer. There was nobody who knew exactly what to say at every moment and what not to say.”
Rabbi Raphael Butler wrote that Rabbi Kelemer was a pioneer in the inclusion of disabled individuals at shul services. “It was Rabbi Kelemer who introduced the practice of communities around the world to offering aliyos to the Torah to Yachad members. It was Rabbi Kelemer who shared the lectern with a Yachad member offering a d’var Torah to the entire community,” he wrote of that service in 1984. “I am told it was the first time she had spoken publicly.”
Rabbi Kelemer is mourned by his wife Ruchy, his children, grandchildren, and the global Jewish community.
He led with the highest level of humility as well as unparalleled enthusiasm. He had confidence in us and now it is our charge to live up to his expectations and make him proud,” said Arthur Cooperberg, president of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. “Rabbi Kelemer was the neshamah of our k’hilah.”
By Sergey Kadinsky