Since Rabbi Kelemer zt”l’s passing, I have been eagerly reading every hesped that’s been printed and every story that’s been posted about him. His kindness, his brilliance, his extraordinary chessed. Just one hesped isn’t enough! Because each one, by definition, only captures a sliver. So, here I modestly offer my own small contribution to the portrait of Rabbi Kelemer that has begun to emerge.
In some communities, advocacy for women’s rights is often a palpable part of the fabric of the culture. I always marveled that this tension, while present in West Hempstead, didn’t really rise to a significant level here. I think it’s because we didn’t need it to. You only need to fight to be heard if you’re ignored and dismissed. That never happened here. Rabbi Kelemer ALWAYS made us feel heard and respected.
Some simple examples: The mechitzah design in the Young Israel allows for women to see everything happening on the other side. The sisterhood of the YIWH is an impactful arm of the shul – it has a voice, it has influence. Rabbi Kelemer quietly (everything Rabbi Kelemer did was quiet) allowed for a women’s gemara shiur to be given in the Young Israel,for a women’s megillah reading in the neighborhood, and for women to comfortably say Kaddish if they wished to. There are regular ongoing programs for women from shiurim to challah bakes and everything in between. He endorsed the first female scholar-in-residence, Rabbanit Henkin, to speak after davening from the Young Israel’s pulpit on Shabbos.
But that’s a laundry list. The true respect he showed for the women in the neighborhood was in the details. Watching his eyes glow as he listened to Rabbanit Henkin, and the respect he showed her. Allotting his time for women’s “Ask the Rabbi” sessions on an ongoing basis. Making the effort to have kashering demonstrations. (Do you know I once went to kasher some kiddush cups and it was he who I handed the cups to and he was the one who dipped them? It was amazing that he chose to spend his limited time doing that for and with us.)
And then there is the personal stuff, the stories that can’t be shared because they are private. The times he spent on all those personal, female questions. He always handled them with grace and sensitivity.
But back to the public. His “Ask the Rabbi” sessions often had piles of gems within them.
Here are some questions that people asked that I remember vividly, and my recollection of his answers:
The Candle Lighting Question: One woman asked about lighting additional candles in honor of relatives who had passed away. A second woman matter-of-factly asked a follow-up: “My whole family died in the Holocaust– How many candles should I light?” The way he answered her with utter focus was masterful. Yes, he gave her the technical answer, but he responded so sensitively to the tragedy underneath that question, and offered her comfort by saying that the flames of the candles she lit were a tribute to them all.
Yes, he gave her the technical answer, but he responded so sensitively to the tragedy underneath that question, and offered her comfort by saying that the flames of the candles she lit were a tribute to them all.
The Soup Question: What should we do if we go to someone for Shabbos lunch and they serve us hot soup? Answer: Wait for the soup to cool down so it’s not yad soledes, burning hot, and then enjoy the soup. The most important thing is that we all go to each other’s homes, and not embarrass one another. This theme came up again and again in his answers and his derashot.
The Shidduchim Question: Rabbi Kelemer was very soft spoken and never raised his voice. But when a woman asked him a seemingly simple question: What can we do to help singles find their shidduchim? He went on a small rant about the absurd questions he was asked when people called him to investigate a shidduch. He gave examples, and then explained how he turned each aside. I wish I could remember them all! The only one I can recall, “They ask me: ‘Did her grandmother go to the mikvah?’ I answer: ‘How old do you think I am?’” There were lots of laughs in that session. But then he got serious and added wistfully: “They never ask me, ‘Will this person treat my child gently? Will they show them kindness?’”
The Tzinus Question: One woman asked, Is there a limit to tznius? Is it praiseworthy to be more and more tznius? This made him pause for a moment. And then he answered: Yes. There is a limit. When “extra” tznius interferes with another mitzvah, it’s too much.
The Controversial Question: Remarkably, this was asked more than ten years ago. And when it was, the audience present started twittering uncomfortably. You could tell that the questioner started to look around uncomfortably, wondering if she stepped over an invisible line. But he quickly reassured the woman and asserted that it was a very important question. The question: How do we talk to our kids about homosexuality? His answer? With kindness. (Actually, this was always part of his answer to every question.)
His answer? With kindness. (Actually, this was always part of his answer to every question.)
A final memory. This past year, I was lucky enough to catch Rabbi Kelemer on one of his famous walks. We greeted each other. And then Rabbi Kelemer demonstrated, once again, how he knew us all so well, and what each person would find meaningful. He knew my interest in women’s issues. So before he proceeded on with his walker, he took a moment to tell me how a gadol in Israel had ruled that even in this time of COVID-19, where seats in shuls were limited, women must be allotted seats because a kehillah must include women. He added his appreciation for how incredible the psak is, and that only a gadol would know this, because it is not text based, but requires a deeper understanding.
I thanked him and said it’s nice to know that we matter.
“More than matter!” he emphasized.
And that was the thing. He made us all feel like we all mattered. That we were made b’tzelelm elokim. It was as if those hidden, G-dly sparks within us all were manifest and visible to him. And it inspired us—it inspired me—so very, very much.
May his family, and all of us, find comfort among the mourners of Tzion.
Ann D. Koffsky and her family have been members of the Young Israel of West Hempstead for the past 20 years.
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