When I tell people that Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer zt”l was my rabbi before he came to West Hempstead, they immediately think that I am from Brookline, Massachusetts. After all, Rabbi Kelemer was the rabbi there from the early 1970s until 1983, when he became the rav of the Young Israel of West Hempstead. However, I never lived in Brookline (a Yankees fan in Boston?), so how was Rabbi Kelemer my rav? Simple! The first congregational position Rabbi Kelemer ever held was as the rav in Congregation Sons of Israel – Ahavas Achim of Middle Village, Queens – where I was born and raised!
At the time, Rabbi Kelemer – a young married man – lived in Kew Gardens and used to walk to Middle Village (about three miles) every Shabbos. During the winter months, he would stay in Middle Village all day, until Shabbos was over. Since he knew he could trust my parents’ kashrus, he would eat lunch with my family and then my mother z”l would insist that he rest a bit until Minchah.
Unfortunately for Rabbi Kelemer, living in that house was a very annoying nine-year-old boy (me!) who loved playing chess, and the rav always sat down for a nice, long game. My mother would say, “Let the Rabbi rest,” but Rabbi Kelemer answered that he was fine. And so, the minhag was established of playing chess with Rabbi Kelemer every Shabbos afternoon. He never complained and never said he was tired.
I must admit that I didn’t understand nor appreciate what he was doing until much later in life. I’m sure he wanted to rest and prepare for his afternoon shiur, but he never pushed that nine-year-old kid away. What a lesson in life! What a special person! A gadol b’Torah giving his full time and attention to a little boy! I never forgot that quality time and, because of it, I have always been close to rabbanim. Rabbi Kelemer made an unforgettable impression on me and on the way our leaders need to relate to youth.
A few years later, I became a youth director in Forest Hills and learned from his personal example. I sat with kids, listened to them, and never told them that I was too busy. It’s one of the reasons why I was successful. Thank you, Rabbi Kelemer, for teaching me that valuable lesson!
A short time after Rabbi Kelemer left Middle Village, my family moved to Kew Gardens Hills. In terms of distance, it was not a big move, but in terms of culture – it was like moving to a different planet. I went from singing An’im Z’miros every Shabbos to having my name on a waiting list. My father z”l loved the new shul we joined and we immediately became close with the Rabbi – someone named Fabian Schonfeld zt”l.
To me, Rabbi Schonfeld was larger than life. His speeches during Musaf mentioned conversations and private meetings he had with Menachem Begin. It was thanks to Rabbi Schonfeld that I developed a deep love – not only for the Torah – but for Eretz Yisrael and Zionism, as well. His stories excited me, and his shiurim were simply unbelievable. At that time, Kew Gardens Hills had a wide mix of people from various backgrounds, and Rabbi Schonfeld knew had to deal with them all. Our shul had graduates of the finest yeshivos, but it also had people, like my father, who never went to yeshivah a day in their lives. Yet, my father used to run to Rabbi Schonfeld’s Talmud and Navi classes and he would quote from those classes all the time!
Quite a few years later, my mother became Rabbi Schonfeld’s secretary – assisting Pearl Hametz a”h – and my family became even closer to him. When I made aliyah, I lived in Neve Aliza for ten years, very close to Rabbi Schonfeld’s daughters, Vicki Berglas and Debbie Spero. The Rav would often come to visit them, and it was my chance to reconnect and speak to him at length.
I loved talking to Rabbi Schonfeld about politics, a topic that most of today’s rabbanim run away from. He felt that teaching a community meant guiding them in all areas of life – not just halachah – and that a rav must educate his congregation in the political world, as well. How desperately we need rabbanim like that today! A rav must not be afraid to take a stand and, in the 47 years I knew Rabbi Schonfeld, he never backed off from anything. He was a strong and proud leader and a wonderful example of what a rav needs to be.
I thank Hashem for bringing these two rabbis – Rabbi Kelemer and Rabbi Schonfeld – into my life. Tragically, they passed away within a month of each other, and am Yisrael is left with a gaping hole. May Hashem bless their families with comfort, and may these two great men each be a meilitz yosher for his family, his community, and for the entire Nation of Israel.
By Shmuel Sackett