Latest update: December 20th, 2012
I’ve always wondered what factors determine whether one gets a z”l suffix (zichrono leverachah) or a zt”l (zecher tzaddik leverachah) after he’s passed on. I know of no objective standard, or of any official sanctioning board that makes these decisions. In my understanding, the term zt”l is exclusively reserved for luminaries who have benefited their generation with their exemplary deeds and accomplishments.
The term “tzaddik” translates as “righteous,” but in truth it is much more. There are many righteous people among us, but only a very select few are afforded the title of tzaddik. A tzaddik is a person who not only behaves righteously but whose mere presence among us sheds light, setting an example for those in his wake. When a tzaddik departs from us, a void is created that cannot be filled, leaving a generation in mourning.
By this definition, Chaim Kaminetzky, who passed away last week, was surely a tzaddik.
I met Chaim about 24 years ago. At the time I was a graduate student, singing in bands to make some extra money. One afternoon I was singing at a bas mitzvah, and Chaim, who was there to pick up his daughter, approached me and said, “My name is Chaim Kaminetzky. I’m chairing this year’s Ohel dinner, and I’d like for you to perform.”
He took my number and the next day we were sitting at my table in my small apartment in Queens. “I think you have a gift, and I would like to get you out there,” he said.
“Sure,” I replied. It was an offer I couldn’t refuse.
And get me out there he did. By the end of that year I was performing in prestigious venues across the country and around the world. I kept asking Chaim about our financial arrangement, as surely I owed him his agent’s fees. He put me off time and again until I finally realized he never intended to take anything. Not only that, whenever we traveled together he always reached into his own pocket to pay his way in order not to cut into my fees.
But there was much more. At some point I realized I had to be careful about what I said around Chaim, because if I were to let on about anything I needed or even wanted, he would be at my door with it the next day. At first I was puzzled; I didn’t think such people existed. Was I missing something? Actually, I missed nothing, and there was still more.
He was a master at doing things for people quietly, but once in a while I would catch him. I would say, “Chaim’l [my nickname for him], did you do [so and so] or pay for [such and such]?” When he knew I had him cornered the reply was always the same: “Yeah, … so?”
He would never even accept a “thank you” – but after some time I came to understand that for Chaim the reward was already collected when the deed was accomplished, and thus a “thank you” was simply superfluous.
After a while, I began to understand. For the ordinary person, even a very righteous and kind one, his primary concerns are naturally his own and those of his family. For Chaim, however, the concerns of others were his primary concerns, and he had no peace so long as anyone for whom he cared (and there were many) had some unfulfilled need, large or small.
In truth, I had never met anyone like him before, have never met anyone like him since, and, frankly, have no realistic expectation that I will ever meet someone like him again.
* * * * *
When someone had a complicated problem, Chaim was the address. Once an issue, no matter how seemingly insurmountable, was brought to Chaim’s attention, he would find a way to get it resolved. As long as people around him were hurting, there was no rest for Chaim – literally so, as his wife, Barbara, can attest. Chaim was not a good “rester”; most of his nights were largely sleepless. But Barbara was his pillar of strength and she looked after Chaim while he was busy looking after everyone else. And Chaim never missed an opportunity to shower praise on Barbara and credit her for anything he was privileged to accomplish.
Chaim was involved with several organizations, but one that primarily spoke to Chaim’s heart was Ohel Children’s Home and Family Services. The enormous compassion and vision Chaim brought to Ohel over the past three decades were indispensable assets. Chaim also expanded his activities to include the National Council of Young Israel and was elected national president in the early 1990s. At that time, the National Council, once a central voice in the world of American Orthodoxy, seemed to have faded into the background. Under Chaim’s leadership, however, the organization was restored to its place as a national and international voice of Orthodox Jewry, which it remains today.
Chaim was well respected in the political world as well, and was frequently called on for his advice and assistance with Jewish affairs. One political figure who frequently sought Chaim’s counsel was former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani, who had a singular respect for Chaim. When Chaim was honored by Ohel, then-Mayor Giuliani was scheduled to be the keynote speaker. As it turned out, that night was one of the coldest of the year and the mayor was tied up in his efforts to get people off the streets and into shelters. Nevertheless, at about 11 p.m., after nearly everyone had cleared out and the lights were about to go off, there came a shout from the back of the ballroom: “Where’s Chaim? Let’s have dinner!” In strolled the mayor, who wasn’t about to miss a chance to honor Chaim. They brought out the food, and Mayor Giuliani and Chaim sat down together to a private dinner.
Professionally, Chaim was a nursing home administrator. But in that endeavor as well Chaim stood out as one of those who went above and beyond for his residents. Shortly after I met Chaim, he called and asked me to put together a band for a bar mitzvah scheduled to take place at his nursing home. Though I thought it an unusual place for a bar mitzvah, I asked no questions and booked the musicians. As it turned out, there was a 58-year-old resident dying of lung cancer who had expressed regret that he’d never had a bar mitzvah. Chaim got wind of it and made him a gala bar mitzvah celebration with all the trimmings.
Chaim’s governing philosophy was: “If anyone is unhappy, find out what it is so I can fix it. I don’t want any unhappy residents.”
* * * * *
Chaim was well known for his extraordinary culinary talents and, true to his natural inclination to take care of people, he really knew how to make a feast. This found expression in his “Pesach With the Chevrah” programs, which combined Chaim’s signature elite cuisine with five-star hotel accommodations. Chaim, together with his sons and sons-in-law, was able to convert an entire hotel into a Yom Tov paradise while adhering to strict halachic standards. What Chaim most enjoyed about the Pesach programs, however, was having the opportunity to bring together his extended family and dear friends for Yom Tov and serve them in grand style – or “Chaim Style.”
For a typical Pesach he hosted more than a thousand guests but, true to his nature, refused to sit down to his own Seder until he had personally checked on every table to make sure all his guests were happy.
Chaim’s love for Torah and Yiddishkeit was boundless. When it came to performing a mitzvah, he did that “Chaim Style” as well, sparing nothing. A perfect example was Chaim’s sukkah. Walking through its threshold was like passing from Kansas into the Land of Oz; adorned with fountains, chandeliers, dancing monkeys, waterfalls, a fish tank, and even a scale model of the Beis HaMikdash, it had to be seen to be believed. And as if all that weren’t enough, he also had an elevated train circumnavigating the perimeter.
When it came to standing on principle, Chaim was a fearless warrior. But at the same time he was most definitely a “softy” as his emotions were always close to the surface and he was never far from tears. But no reminiscence of Chaim could possibly be complete without reference to his impish sense of humor. There were certain lines he used that were uniquely his – “Chaim-isms,” if you will. For example, if you ever used the expression “chas v’shalom” in his presence he would quickly retort, “I know his brother, Oliver.” Think about it.
Chaim had a joke for everybody, and whether in the presence of pauper or president the mischievous twinkle in his eye was ever present. Back in the early 1990s Chaim accompanied me to Avery Fischer Hall, where I was singing at the Cardozo Law School Graduation. We were backstage, lining up with the administration and faculty for the processional, and then-president of Yeshiva University Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm recognized Chaim and approached to extend his greetings. After an exchange of pleasantries there was a moment of silence. Chaim looked down and noticed the enormous medallion Rabbi Lamm was wearing as part of his commencement ceremony regalia. Breaking the silence, Chaim picked up the medallion and asked, “Rabbi, is this chocolate?” Rabbi Lamm roared with laughter.
Chaim and Barbara’s home was the epitome of hachnasas orchim. Their dining room table, the size of which rivaled that of a football field, was always filled with guests. There was a constant influx of boys from their sons’ yeshiva who were treated by Chaim and Barbara as their own. Looking around the room at Chaim’s levayah, I could see many of these boys, now grown and settled with families of their own.
Multitudes were in attendance to pay their final respects to Chaim. The expanded sanctuary of the Young Israel of Hillcrest was packed to standing room only. Particularly striking was the look in everyone’s eyes. More than just sadness, it conveyed the question, “What are we going to do without Chaim?” To that I have no answer. There is no answer.
A motorcade as far as the eye could see accompanied Chaim’s aron to Kennedy Airport, where he departed upon his final journey for kevurah in Israel. A well-wisher approached Chaim’s son Yitzy. “Now,” the gentleman said, “it’s up to you to continue your father’s legacy.” After a momentary pause, Yitzy replied with a big, tearful smile, “Hey, hey, let’s be realistic with our expectations here – those are very big shoes to fill.”
Yitzy is right. Chaim Kaminetzky was an extraordinary gift from Hashem, and there is simply no replacement. I can scarcely think of a blessing in my life that does not, in some way, have Chaim Kaminetzky’s fingerprints on it. If I were to try to recount what Chaim had done for me and for my family, I could fill pages and pages and not even scratch the surface. But that is only me; there are countless others with their own stories about Chaim, most of which we likely will never hear about.
Chaim’s dear friend and mentor, Rabbi Shulem Rubin, said the following under Chaim and Barbara’s chuppah: “Toras Chaim is ahavas chesed.” I believe that says it all. With Chaim in our lives, there was always a feeling that we were secure and cared for, and now without him we are left with a gaping hole in our hearts.
If I know Chaim, he is standing before the Kisei HaKavod at this very moment, advocating for us and for all of Klal Yisrael. It was an enormous privilege for me to have been considered one of his very dear friends. My life, and the lives of so many others, are unfathomably better for having known him.
About the Author: Ira Heller is a singer/performer and an attorney practicing law in New York City. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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