In the years since he turned 90 a decade ago, Rabbi Sidney Kleiman would ask his friends if they thought he would celebrate his next significant birthday.
The rabbi, who served for 75 years as spiritual leader — since 2000 as emeritus rabbi — at Congregation Adereth El in Manhattan’s Murray Hill neighborhood, sometimes asked Daniel Levine, a congregant, “Am I going to make it to 100?” Levine said.
Rabbi Kleiman reached his goal.
The rabbi, whose 100th birthday was marked at a gala celebration in January at the Museum of Jewish Heritage – A Living Memorial to the Holocaust, died of natural causes June 7 in the Northern Manor geriatric center in Rockland County’s Nanuet, where he spent his last few weeks after his health started to fail last month.
Several hundred mourners attended the rabbi’s funeral this week in the synagogue, after which the two nearby Fire Department companies blocked Lexington Avenue with their fire engines, firefighters standing shoulder-to-shoulder while the rabbi’s coffin was escorted to a hearse and raising a ladder over the street as a sign of respect.
Until he became weak recently, Rabbi Kleiman continued to attend daily worship services at his synagogue, pushed by an aide in his wheelchair and lifted by congregants onto the bima, said Rabbi Gideon Shloush, who has served 17 years at Adereth El, first as Rabbi Kleiman’s assistant, then as the congregation’s main spiritual leader.
Rabbi Kleiman delivered his last sermon at the shul on Passover, in March, speaking without notes, quoting from Bible, Plato and Aristotle.
“I have never known a person living to age 100 who was still so sharp and clear and determined,” said Levine, owner of J. Levine Books & Judaica. “He was always a role model.”
Rabbi Kleiman was reportedly the longest-serving and oldest congregational rabbi in the country.
A native of the East Village in Manhattan, he grew up poor in the South Bronx. Forced to assume responsibility for his family’s finances after his father lost a leg in an accident, he worked while attending Yeshiva University. “I became a salesman,” he told the Jewish Press. “Every day I would walk from my house to the yeshiva, going into all the candy stores and selling them stationery.”
On a good day he would earn enough to pay for bus fare back to the Bronx.
After ordination Rabbi Kleiman served as spiritual leader of a small congregation in the northern Bronx, taking his two young children by subway to school on the Lower East Side. “You can’t keep this up,” said a friend, who mentioned an opening at Adereth El.
Although he was not interested in changing jobs, Rabbi Kleiman agreed to go to Adereth El — which calls itself the city’s oldest Jewish house of worship still in its original building — for one Shabbat. In his sermon, the week after British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain returned from a meeting with Adolf Hitler declaring that the leaders had achieved “peace in our time,” the rabbi blasted Chamberlain’s naïvete.
The synagogue members, impressed by Rabbi Kleiman’s bold speech in an era of American isolationism, offered the rabbi the job as their spiritual leader.
A job he never left. He was also a chaplain at Bellevue Hospital for a half-century.
“He interacted with so many people. Hundreds of thousands of people passed through his doors,” including tourists and students from nearby Stern College, said Rabbi Shloush. “He was dedicated to the people of the community, to the Torah. He was a very warm and compassionate individual. People connected with that.”
“Being a rabbi wasn’t a job for him — it was a calling,” Rabbi Shloush said in his eulogy.
A widower for more than two decades, Rabbi Kleiman is survived by a son, Seymour; a sister, Jeanie Finkel; five grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren and great-great-grandchildren. Another son, Yitzchak, died a year ago.
Rabbi Shloush said Rabbi Kleiman guided the congregation’s change in membership from mostly families to a growing number of young singles. He would stand on the street to bring people inside for services, and would call people on the phone, rousing them from sleep on Sunday mornings to come to minyan.
In his early years at Adereth El, during the final years of the Great Depression, members would donate coal instead of money when they received an aliyah in shul.
“My first drasha [sermon] was in Yiddish,” Rabbi Kleiman said in the Jewish Press interview, “but the American kids didn’t understand Yiddish. They said, ‘Rabbi, speak in English.’ So I did.”
“Rabbi Sidney Kleiman demonstrated that goodness and greatness could be found in one person,” said Rabbi Joseph Potasnik, executive vice president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “Jewish tradition teaches us that one should acquire a friend and have a rabbi. With Sidney Kleiman you found both in the same individual.”
Lay leaders at Adereth El asked Rabbi Kleiman about 25 years ago if he was considering retirement.
“No way,” the rabbi answered. He said his mother had lived to 104 and he expected to outlive her.
“He was a fighter. It kept him going, it gave him drive,” Rabbi Shloush said.
A life of 100 years was a full life, Rabbi Shloush said. “One hundred,” according to Jewish tradition, “is completion. He really achieved that in his life.”