Photo Credit: Jewish Press

The proficiency of Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, former rabbi of Young Israel of West Hempstead, NY in halacha was legendary. No matter what you asked, he knew the answer without hesitation.

During intercession from veterinary school, (Dr.) Doni Zivotofsky (brother of Ari Zivotofsky of Jerusalem passport fame – or more accurately, uncle of Menachem Zivotofsky who, thanks to Mr. Nat and Ms. Alyza Lewin, who argued the case of their youngest pro bono client before the Supreme Court, had the first U.S. passport inscribed “Jerusalem, Israel” under birthplace), soon to become a large-animal veterinarian – his clients would include the thoroughbreds at the Belmont Racetrack and the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus when they were in New York – came home to West Hempstead. This presented an opportunity to discuss some of the halachic dilemmas he faced regarding his instruction in neutering.


One would imagine that this is not a facet of halacha that a poseik confronts often, as it is an esoteric, abstruse, arcane, cryptic, and obscure topic in halacha. Did I mention esoteric?

But Rabbi Kelemer, without a second’s hesitation, replied. “See the Pischei Teshuva on Even Haezer siman heh, s’eif kattan….”

A poseik competent in every facet of Shulchan Aruch is an asset bestowed very sparingly upon the Jewish people, and commensurately valued. Many people, however, turned to Rabbi Kelemer not just because of his proficiency, but because he always knew precisely whom he was addressing, and perceived what they needed – without tampering with halacha. And like no other, he had the magical touch, as Rabbi J.J. Schacter labeled it, to make a psak work.

Rabbi Professor Schacter, who was blessed with a long relationship with Rabbi Kelemer, understood that there was no other address that would be as productive for him in the realm of piskei halacha. Rabbi Schacter, it should be pointed out, is no slouch (criminal level of understatement!), and yet he would turn to Rabbi Kelemer to resolve halachic issues. A recipient of rabbinic ordination from Torah Vodaath and a doctorate from Harvard University, Rabbi Schacter is a noted historian and a full professor at Yeshiva University, the former rabbi of the Jewish Center in Manhattan, and former dean of the Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik Institute. An invaluable edge that Rabbi Kelemer brought to Rabbi Schacter was that he understood the pressure that a pulpit rabbi was under from his congregation and the synagogue board. Rabbi Kelemer knew the fine line one had to tread to remain faithful to halacha and not offend or distance congregants.

One project that was especially dear to Rabbi Kelemer was what he labeled Kinuss Bnei Hayeshivah, which he had introduced in the Young Israel of Brookline and carried with him to West Hempstead on every Yom Tov. (Rabbi Zev Cohen, the well-known rabbi and poseik in Yeshurun, Chicago, reportedly was the first participant in the Kinuss Bnei Hayeshivah in Brookline.) This program consisted of presentations by several yeshiva students who were away at yeshiva in Israel but had returned home for the holiday. Rabbi Kelemer asked these students to present a brief discourse during the time that the Rabbi would generally address the shul. Everyone had freedom to discuss whatever they wished, with the one caveat that they had to leave ten minutes at the end for the Rabbi to speak.

From the Rabbi’s perspective, these addresses were a win-win. They enabled parents, many of whom were ambivalent about the wisdom of a non-college year devoted to exclusive Torah study, to see vindication of the Israel choice. At the very same time, the parents witnessed that their sons had acquired a hitherto unachieved proficiency in Torah learning. Furthermore, the presenters were a good example to younger boys who might have been wavering on spending a gap year in Israel.

Most importantly, the delivery strengthened the yeshiva students themselves. The boys were elevated in the eyes of the synagogue, and critically, they were elevated because of their toil in Torah. It was crucial for Rabbi Kelemer that the boys see that they could impact themselves and others with their divrei Torah.

Well-prepared boys eloquently presented their ideas; others less so. After all the boys had made their presentations, the Rabbi would complement the erudition of the address, straighten out any rough edges that might have been confused – the whole time gushing and oozing as to what a treat the shul had just been exposed to. From the Rabbi’s flattering kudos, one would imagine that Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik had just concluded a shiur at the Young Israel.

No matter what was delivered, the Rabbi never corrected, and always managed to extract the kernel of truth that was said or implied. Sometimes this was a challenge, but the Rabbi still pulled it off seamlessly, and then he would review and recap what was said. Before he would conclude, he would elaborate on each topic, adding comments and insightful questions about various points that were raised.

As one individual phrased it, Rabbi Kelemer did not so much review what was said, but what should have been said (all the while being careful to preserve the dignity of the speaker with enthusiastic praise for the drasha).


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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.