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Everyone knows stories of admirable bikur cholim, yet what Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, zt”l, former rabbi of Young Israel of West Hempstead, did in this regard rewrote the book and raised the bar way above skyscrapers.

There are people, indeed it is a common phenomenon, who think about who will be the first person to greet them when they emerge from surgery. Nesanel Feller also might have been having these thoughts when he went under. After the operation, Nesanel was anesthetized and groggy, and certainly not in a position to see who was coming and going. Indeed, it was still beyond his ability to even open his eyes.


But Feller was awake enough to hear the buzz of medical personnel, the whoosh of machines, and the thump of monitors. And then, in the midst of all of this hospital ambience, he heard the friendly voice of Rabbi Kelemer extending greetings and blessings. This was something to wake up to!

The rabbi was the first one to greet him in a room that was sterile but for gowned surgical staff. But with his immediate family gathered no further than outside the recovery room in Manhattan’s super-non-parking-friendly Columbia Presbyterian Hospital, how in the world did Rabbi Kelemer, who was not even Nesanel’s rabbi, slip in?

This question arose again and again during the decades of unassuming and astounding leadership provided by Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer wherever he went.

One woman related that her husband was in the hospital near the end of his battle with cancer. He suffered a stroke and now she knew that it was time to call Rabbi Kelemer. He responded, “I’ll be right there. I’m in Rhode Island but I’ll be there soon.” Rhode Island to West Hempstead is the same as Baltimore to West Hempstead, but it made no difference to Rabbi Kelemer, who indeed arrived as soon as he could get there. He stayed with the distraught wife that agonizing week and was with her husband at the very end. The woman wasn’t a member of the Young Israel (that never seemed to matter at all to Rabbi Kelemer), and he took care of every detail of the burial. He also periodically called her afterwards to ask how she was doing and if there was anything else that he could do for her.

One woman described that her mother was in Columbia Presbyterian Hospital when Hurricane Sandy hit. She was unable to visit because of the severe weather so she called and told her mom, “It’s impossible for me to come see you today.” “It’s OK,” her mother responded, “Rabbi Kelemer is here with me.”

Huh?! The woman immediately demanded to speak to Rabbi Kelemer. “Rabbi, how were you able to get into the city?” she asked. He responded, “I happened to be in the neighborhood and am keeping your mother company, singing Modzitz zemiros with her, so no need to worry.” He said this so nonchalantly that it actually rang true.

One gentleman related that his grandfather was very ill. He had faced a long struggle with Alzheimer’s disease, and frequently required hospitalization, often at Maimonides Hospital in Brooklyn. The hospital was a long distance from every relative, but all the grandchildren would visit with him during different shifts at various hours. One evening, at a very late hour, one grandson arrived to spend a few hours with his zaide, only to find that he already had a visitor at his bedside. Without telling anyone that he was going, Rabbi Kelemer had driven for hours to sit with this old man, who was not his congregant and had been non-verbal for many years. The rabbi was obviously embarrassed when the grandson walked in and found him there. Not only had he not mentioned to any of the family that he was going, but he was clearly never going to mention that he had ever been there.

Rabbi Kelemer quickly excused himself, but not before sharing that he felt obligated to come visit and show respect for a Holocaust survivor. Amazingly, he also thanked the grandson for allowing him to come. After he left, the nurse on the overnight shift related that Rabbi Kelemer had been there for hours, holding the old man’s hand and quietly sitting with him.

One Yom Kippur during mussaf, Michael Levine’s grandfather unceremoniously collapsed and in short order was rushed to Mercy Hospital in Rockville Center. When an elderly gentleman passes out, there is naturally reason for concern. But it being Yom Kippur, there was not much that the family and loved ones could do, other than – appropriately – pray. Rabbi Kelemer, naturally, did as everyone else, entreating our Father in Heaven to send a speedy recovery – and then, characteristically, a tad more. Discreetly and inconspicuously, he slipped out of shul and was immediately hit with a riptide of heat as the temperature and the humidity were both in the high 90s. Conceivably, there could be no worse weather to walk along the Sunrise Highway. For the uninitiated, there is something extraordinarily Orwellian in the name “Sunrise Highway.” A stretch of road winding its way through Long Island, any self-respecting stellar intergalactic twinkling celestial body would keep its distance from this least pedestrian-friendly road in America. Walking along this noisy, polluted artery, where vapor trails assault and envelop, and road detritus spews out like the spray from a hydrant wrenched open in the summertime, would have to be the least desirable place to be on Yom Kippur afternoon. And there was Rabbi Kelemer, hiking three scorching miles in each direction to the hospital.

He did what he had to do, restoring cheer and hope, and then hustled his way back – along the malevolent crevasse of sundown highway – just in time to lead Ne’ilah in Young Israel.

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Rabbi Hanoch Teller is the award-winning producer of three films, a popular teacher in Jerusalem yeshivos and seminaries, and the author of 28 books, the latest entitled Heroic Children, chronicling the lives of nine child survivors of the Holocaust. Rabbi Teller is also a senior docent in Yad Vashem and is frequently invited to lecture to different communities throughout the world.