The second yahrzeit for Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer zt”l, the late rav of the Young Israel of West Hempstead, was marked by a busy weekend that included a parent-child tish on Friday night with singer Eitan Katz, who also led Shabbos davening, and Kollel Yom Rishon with two leading speakers from Yeshiva University. The events were attended by members of all West Hempstead shuls, demonstrating Rabbi Kelemer’s influence across the community.
“He was not a talmid of the yeshivah, but we are all students of Torah,” said Rabbi Joshua Goller, the present rav of the shul, who served as the associate rabbi during the last eight years of Rabbi Kelemer’s life. “During his long career, he was sought by people, far and wide, for his opinion on Torah matters, and at the same time he paid attention to the needs of his community.”
Rabbi Goller introduced his colleague, Rabbi Menachem Penner, the dean of the seminary at Yeshiva University where Rabbi Goller also received his s’michah. He spoke of the growth in enrollment at the school. “We welcomed the biggest number in decades. The campus is hopping.” Looking at his audience, he noted that there are many musmachim and graduates of YU living in West Hempstead. Rabbi Goller then introduced Rabbi Aryeh Lebowitz, the director of the s’michah program and rav of the Beis Knesses of North Woodmere. He noted the presence of Rabbi Elan Soniker of Anshei Shalom and Rabbi Efrem Schwalb of Eitz Chayim, among his local colleagues at the event.
“The theme is mesorah,” Rabbi Lebowitz said, noting the topic of the event. “Yesterday’s daf offers an excellent section on mesoras haTorah. Who are the most likely candidates to be the rabbanim of the future? Rabbi Penner and I try to identify these people.”
The daf is N’darim 81a, which mentions that the sons of the poor will become Torah scholars, while it is rare for the sons of Torah scholars to become Torah scholars. Rabbi Lebowitz is among the popular lecturers on YUTorah, whose 40-minute lecture is listened to by thousands of daily participants.
“Is that really true?” he asks about this gemara. “Think of the g’dolim today.” Many of them are the sons of g’dolim, descendants of rabbinical dynasties. Rather, this teaching means five things. Among them is that every Jewish child is deserving of an education. “If education is reserved for the rich, then we are cutting off a supply line in Jewish education.” The high cost of chinuch in this country is a problem that shows the relevance of this gemara.
He then noted that the Ran (Rabbeinu Nissim ben Reuven) spoke of their poverty as a plus, as they could focus more on their learning, not having a family business on which to rely, and that their ability to teach would serve as a source of income.
He spoke of this gemara as an encouragement for the klal, as showing that there should not be a sense of entitlement among children of Torah scholars. Even the insulting term “donkey” that is applied to the poor can be seen in a positive light, as “donkeys” can carry a heavy load of learning materials.
Again noting a contradiction, Rabbi Lebowitz noted that Rav Pappa had ten sons who were scholars in their own right, worthy of being mentioned at the completion of every masechta. He cited Rav Elyashiv’s explanation that it was in the way that Rav Pappa taught that led his sons to greatness. “It was kevod haTorah, including all opinions. People sometimes treat Torah as an enjoyment, but it is arguing back and forth, an animated conversation.”
He spoke of Torah learning as a struggle, where one must balance learning with family responsibilities, while making it relevant in everything that we do.
Rabbi Goller then introduced the second speaker, Rabbi Mordechai Willig shlita, a rosh yeshivah at the YU seminary and the rav of the Young Israel of Riverdale. He spoke of Rabbi Kelemer as a “unique Torah personality” with an “incredible devotion to his flock.”
Rabbi Kelemer’s ability to speak to his congregants on controversial matters while maintaining his view was recognized by Rav Moshe Feinstein, who responded to a letter that he wrote to him in 1976. It was in regard to feminists in the community who wanted to learn the same materials as men and to perform their mitzvos. “To be strong in this onslaught,” he said of the challenge that Rabbi Kelemer faced.
He then noted that his rebbe, Rav Soloveitchik, faced the same questions. “Women are not less in their sanctity than men.” In regard to laws of marriage and divorce, and brides taking on the minhagim of their husbands, he spoke of these matters as functional rather than anything else.
“Look to Maseches B’rachos. Not because they’re inferior but because they have different roles. Try having a child. Women are more equipped to raise a child.” Quoting the navi Yeshaya, Hashem promises more to women than to men.
Concerning the difficult issues that Rabbi Kelemer faced as a poseik and mara d’asra, he responded with sensitivity and care, but without ceding the ground on which he stood. He brought respect to the Torah, the rabbinate, and to West Hempstead. In this memory, his community continues to grow and uphold Jewish values.
By Sergey Kadinsky