It’s not often that I get to speak to a rabbi about to celebrate his 99th birthday.
Last week I visited Rabbi Sidney Kleiman, who has served as rabbi (now rabbi emeritus) of Manhattan’s Congregation Adereth El for over 70 years. Hired in 1939, Rabbi Kleiman still attends minyan every morning without fail. “I’m determined to do so,” he told me. “I’m the first one in shul because I believe that minyan is the most important part of Judaism today. If people come to minyan every day, then Judaism will endure.”
In a sense, Rabbi Kleiman’s age perfectly fits his synagogue, for Adereth El is New York’s oldest continually used synagogue building. Founded in 1857 by Bohemian Jews, the congregation constructed its current building on East 29th St. (between Lexington and Third Avenues) in 1864.
The synagogue originally possessed a German character – the traditional prayer on behalf of the government, for example, was recited in German until 1899 – but by the time Rabbi Kleiman came to the shul, Russian Jews had taken it over, and its rabbis delivered sermons in Yiddish.
Times were changing, though. “My first drasha was in Yiddish,” Rabbi Kleiman recalls, “but the American kids didn’t understand Yiddish. They said, ‘Rabbi, speak in English,’ so I did.”
Not everyone was happy. “When I preached my first English sermon, a fellow [named] Goldberg walked out and made a whole tumult,” Rabbi Kleiman said. Nonetheless, most of the congregation supported him. “They were trying to get the American youth back to Judaism,” Rabbi Kleiman explains. “Not many Jews were observant; everybody was going away from Judaism.
“When I came here there was nothing. It was a non-Jewish neighborhood. I had to build it up. I used to get on the telephone and call up people for minyan. Sunday morning I would call, and they would say, ‘Hey, rabbi, I want to sleep.’ I said, ‘Never mind sleep, come to shul.’ They resented me for what I did, but that didn’t stop me.”
Synagogue attendance was not the shul’s only difficulty. The Great Depression naturally hit the synagogue hard, and Rabbi Kleiman remembers congregants donating coal and suits instead of money. “They donated a suit to the chazzan and shamash, but the shamash resented it. ‘I don’t want your suit. Give me cash,’ he said. It was a tough period.”
I asked Rabbi Kleiman, who was born in New York City, why he decided to enter the rabbinate in an era when so many others pursued more “American” and lucrative careers. “As a child,” he replied, “I used to go to a synagogue on 146th St. in the Bronx. The rabbi was Rabbi Abraham Naphtali Gallant and I was inspired by his talks to become a rabbi. My family thought I was crazy. ‘That’s not a job for an American boy,’ they said. They wanted me to become a lawyer, but I insisted.”
To that end, Rabbi Kleiman attended the newly established Yeshiva College, receiving his semicha from Rav Moshe Soloveichik. “He was a great man,” Rabbi Kleiman recalls, noting, however, that he “wasn’t as strict as [his legendary son] Yosef Ber.” He also remembers the school’s founder, Rabbi Dr. Bernard Revel. “He was a big scholar and very dedicated to the yeshiva. He liked me and encouraged me.”
Achieving his goal was not easy. Due to an accident, Rabbi Kleiman’s father had to have his leg amputated, and Rabbi Kleiman was forced to assume responsibility for supporting his family. “I became a salesman. Every day I would walk from my house to the yeshiva, going into all the candy stores and selling them stationery.”
“He’s really an inspiration,” said Rabbi Gideon Shloush, 40, Adereth El’s current rabbi. “He’s impacted so many lives over so many decades. He continues to give drashos. That’s an amazing thing – he’ll get up and speak with no papers for 10-15 minutes. People are very inspired; they love to hear him. He kept this shul going, and now, remarkably, we’re seeing a resurgence and revitalization of the community.”
I asked Rabbi Kleiman if he sees himself as a role model. “I’m not interested in setting myself as a model,” he said. “I’m not that big a man. My name is Kleiman, which means ‘small man,’ kleiner mann. I’m just happy to do what I do, and if people want to follow my example, so much better.”
Adereth El is celebrating Rabbi Kleiman’s birthday next Shabbat, January 28. Rabbi Kleiman will deliver the sermon. Rabbi Shloush asks that people e-mail their memories of Rabbi Kleiman, and tributes, to firstname.lastname@example.org.