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A Rabbi of Inclusion

Remembering Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, who opened doors for the developmentally disabled

Raphael B. Butler
January 08, 2021

The world today is all about inclusion. But it wasn’t always like that, especially for the developmentally disabled among us. The sad news reverberating throughout the Jewish community informing us of the passing on January 8 of Rabbi Yehuda Kelemer, Senior Rabbi of Young Israel of West Hempstead, sparked a flashback in time to January 1984.

The National Conference of Synagogue Youth, the youth movement of the Orthodox Union, had committed to create Yachad, a program of inclusion between NCSY teens and developmentally developed young adults. The model was to be anchored through the Shabbaton celebration, always a core NCSY experience.

We had chosen a Program Director, Chana Zweiter, and under her guidance we began identifying 10 Yachad participants to join with 10 NCSYers and 10 advisers—it meant finding homes to house the chevra and more importantly, a community and rabbi to embrace them.

We found it all in the Young Israel of West Hempstead under the guiding trailblazing hand of Rabbi Kelemer. It was Rabbi Kelemer who introduced the practice of communities around the world to offering aliyot to the Torah to Yachad members. It was Rabbi Kelemer who shared the lectern with a Yachad member offering a dvar torah to the entire community. I am told it was the first time she had ever spoken publicly.

And it was Rabbi Kelemer, who, in the course of the hours of the morning service, greeted each and every member personally and asked them their names. The rabbi then rose and delivered his sermon on inclusion and to my surprise, with no notes, looked around the synagogue and welcomed each Yachad participant by name. Many of the Yachad members could not restrain themselves from expressions of outpouring of joy in their moment of recognition. I and so many others couldn’t restrain our tears.

If I recall correctly, the Shabbat of the first of thousands of events over the years that has opened our communities, our synagogues, our camps, and so much more to the richness of all Yachad experiences occurred on the Shabbat where we blessed the new month of Shevat—the Shabbat of Rabbi Kelemer’s passing 37 years later.

May this revered talmid chacham always be remembered for both his brilliant erudition and his compassionate loving heart.

Yehi zichro baruch.

Rabbi Raphael B. Butler is the President of The Afikim Foundation, an incubator of creative communal and educational programs serving the Jewish community worldwide.