Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, spiritual leader of the Young Israel of West Hempstead, died on Friday at the age of 74.
The cause was not disclosed.
“He made us all feel better about ourselves after being with him,” the synagogue’s president, Arthur Cooperberg, said during funeral services on Sunday. “His sweet nature and quick wit endeared him to us all, but it was his sharp intellect that guided us and gave us answers to our questions large and small. He taught us to treat every person with dignity.”
These themes were echoed by other speakers at the service, held at Young Israel, on Hempstead Avenue, and livestreamed around the world, and in tributes posted online.
Kelemer studied at Mir Yerushalayim in Brooklyn in the 1960s, and received his semicha, or rabbinic ordination, from Rabbi Chaim Leib Shmuelevitz. He began his rabbinical career in Switzerland and then moved to Brookline, Mass., to serve the Young Israel of Brookline during the 1970s. He came to West Hempstead in 1983.
Many people have credited him for the growth of West Hempstead’s Orthodox Jewish community. “At his installation, he alluded to the fact that part of a rabbi’s job is to help grow a community,” Cooperberg recalled. “Well, 38 years later, our Young Israel is the second largest Young Israel in the country. Our community is bursting at the seams.” The synagogue now has more than 700 member families.
Shortly after ascending the pulpit in West Hempstead, Kelemer gave a significant boost to Yachad, an organization that had recently been created by the National Conference of Synagogue Youth to integrate developmentally challenged teens into its activities.
“Rabbi Kelemer was the definition of a mensch who always put the needs of others above himself,” State Sen. Todd Kaminsky said in a statement. “We will all miss his humility, piety and dedication, but the legacy he left of community leadership will continue to live on for generations to come. His memory should be a blessing for us all.”
Referring to Kelemer’s “guiding trailblazing hand,” Rabbi Raphael B. Butler, of the Afikim Foundation, wrote in The Tablet that “it was Kelemer who introduced the practice of communities around the world to offer aliyot (the honor of being called to the reading of the Torah) to Yachad members. It was Rabbi Kelemer who shared the lectern with a Yachad member offering a dvar torah (a talk about the Torah reading) to the entire community. I am told it was the first time she had ever spoken publicly.”
Howard Bressler, a member of Congregation Anshei Shalom in West Hempstead, eulogized Kelemer online, writing that “his genuineness, gentleness, erudition, compassion, joy and warmth are legendary.”
“He was one of those unique people who could make you feel as if the world was made for you and that you were the most special part of it,” Bressler wrote on Facebook. “If you greeted him with kind words, he always one-upped you in compliment. If you said ‘Rabbi, it’s so nice to see you,’ he would say something like ‘today is a cloudy day, but now that I’ve seen you the sun is shining’.”
“Chessed (goodness and charity) and modesty, [that’s] what West Hempstead is known for, and he is the reason why,” said Cooperberg.
Kelemer is survived by his wife and children. Shiva will be observed at his home, at 689 Adams Ave., through Friday morning.