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All My Daughters

Barbara Bensoussan

Rabbi Avraham Kelman z”l’s greatest achievement: the founding of a yeshivah back in the 1950s against all odds, and four generations of Prospect Park alumnae

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

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During Rabbi Avraham Kelman’s 96 years in This World, he embodied the paradigm of self-mastery and willpower — he never wasted time, never took extra, never talked more than necessary.

W hen Dina Feldman (née Kelman) was a little girl, her grandmother would keep her spellbound with tales of the Old Country — a place of greedy landowners and righteous rebbes, how the holy tzaddik would always vanquish the evil poritz. Dina was especially fascinated by the stories of the 36 hidden tzaddikim who hold up each generation with their righteousness. “I used to think my father was one of them,” she says wistfully.

Whether her father, Rabbi Avraham Kelman z”l, was one of those 36 is, of course, G-d’s hidden secret. But he was best known as a chinuch visionary and maverick of girls’ education as founder of Prospect Park Yeshiva in the Flatbush area of Brooklyn back in 1952. Yet he was also an impressive talmid chacham, authoring six volumes of Perspectives on the Parsha of the Week. During his 96-year journey through This World, which came to an end on Shabbos, 13 Av (August 5), he traversed several continents and even more historical shifts, while remaining firmly anchored in Torah — the fuel that kept him pushing forward and building despite life’s crushing challenges. “Torah was what was vital to him, and that’s the language he wanted me to absorb,” relates his only son, Rabbi Leib Kelman, current principal of the Prospect Park Yeshiva and longtime rabbi of Prospect Park Jewish Center/ Ohel Yitzhack Congregation. “When he spoke to me, it was always about learning.”

Yet it was the combination of his impeccable middos and self-mastery and willpower that was his legacy to his family, friends, and close to four generations of Prospect Park Yeshiva alumnae. That’s how he was able to convince postwar parents to enroll their children in yeshivah, saving them from a life of assimilation. He would knock on doors, invite the family for Shabbos, help every public-school student catch up to grade level.

A father-son legacy: Rabbi Avraham and Rabbi Leib Kelman (second)

When Prospect Park switched over to an all-girls’ school, he was the guardian of their chinuch, even in later years when he would traverse the corridors he built in a wheelchair. He was an imposing presence, over six feet tall and lean in build, yet his daughter Dina remembers him as “a big teddy bear.” He was unfailingly gentle to his talmidos, and a rodef shalom in his dealings with congregants, parents, mechutanim, neighbors. At the same time, he possessed a steely self-discipline rarely seen in later generations, and set immensely high standards for himself and often for others as well.

Vouchers for Freedom

Communal responsibility was always part of the Kelman tradition. The family was originally from Galicia, but during and after World War I most had made their way to Vienna. They were affiliated with the Husyatiner chassidus (the first Husyatiner Rebbe, Rav Mordechai Shraga, was one of the six sons of Rebbe Yisrael of Ruzhin), and had been a family of rabbis for many generations. “Rabbis in those days didn’t make a salary, so their wives usually had a job or a business,” Rabbi Leib Kelman explains. “My great-grandmother actually owned a bank, but it collapsed during the First World War. They went bankrupt. My great-grandparents immigrated to Jamaica, New York, where my great-grandfather had a shul and did well for himself. He told his eldest son, my grandfather, to come join him.” (Excerpted from Mishpacha, Issue 675)

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