On Tuesday, October 26, the Kew Gardens Hills community was shocked to hear of the passing of Rabbi David Keehn. This occurred just three weeks after the death of Marc Hoschander. There are many parallels. Marc was born on May 23, 1967, and died on October 1, 2021. Rabbi Keehn was born on June 21, 1967, and died on October 25, 2021. They both died of massive heart attacks right by their places of work. They were both well-known and respected in the community.
I think it’s a mistake to believe that this is a mere coincidence. The first person I would have spoken to about this issue, if he were still around, would have been Rabbi Keehn. But he is not here, and we are forced to try to understand it on our own. I don’t have any answers. However, we need to examine ourselves and our community and see what can be improved.
On more than one occasion, I mentioned that one of the arguments we can make at Rosh HaShanah is that we are too big to fail. In other words, so many people rely upon us that we must be able to live through the year with good health. Rabbi Keehn’s situation has refuted that argument, since I can think of few people who had as much of an impact on so many as he did.
We might not know why these tragedies happened. However, we need to learn from Rabbi Keehn’s example of selfless, tireless dedication to the community. We need to make up for the loss of activities that he did for the community. We should all take some time to consider what can we do to help. It doesn’t have to be a big thing. Before Rabbi Keehn’s passing, I had spoken on Shabbos to the gabbai at the first minyan at Congregation Ahavas Yisrael, who is moving and needs a new replacement. I told him if he couldn’t get anybody else, I would take it. It has been a long time since I had this position. Now I decided to be proactive and have agreed to do it.
What is well known is Rabbi Keehn’s work as a Chaplain at New York Presbyterian Hospital of Queens and NYU Langone. What is not as well known was his work at the Queens Jewish Community Council. I will just mention a few stories that show who he was and what we should try to emulate.
Queens Jewish Community Council is an organization whose membership organizations and board members span the broad spectrum of the Jewish community, from unaffiliated to Orthodox. He succeeded me as president. There were probably some Orthodox people who were unhappy that he became president because they did not think an Orthodox rabbi should be head of an organization that contained non-Orthodox Jews, and there were probably some non-Orthodox who did not want a frum rabbi because they thought it would make it an Orthodox organization. But all that mattered to Rabbi Keehn was that if Jews needed help, he would step up and assist.
He took his responsibilities as president seriously and wanted to continue as president, but understood after a few years that there was someone else who was a better fit, for that time. He anticipated coming back to the position. Then we had to hire a new executive director. Rabbi Keehn supported Rabbi Mayer Waxman. Rabbi Keehn realized that if Rabbi Waxman became executive director, his chance of returning as president would diminish, since it would hard for a broad-based organization to be led by two Orthodox rabbis. The irony is that the first public pronouncement by the new executive director was the condolence ad for Rabbi Keehn. The day Rabbi Keehn died, there was a QJCC board meeting. When he didn’t show up, some people became concerned because he had almost perfect attendance at the meetings.
Rabbi Keehn was a regular when there was food packing for Passover or Rosh HaShanah. He and I spoke regularly about how the organization could improve. The last thing Rabbi Keehn did for the QJCC was to help clean out one of its offices.
It has been a tough month for the Kew Gardens Hills community with the passing of Marc Hoschander, Hillel Newerstein, and Rabbi Keehn. Hopefully, I will not have to write another column about a lost member of our community for a very long time.