Yeshiva Alumnus Rabbi Sidney Kleiman Reflects on 100 Years of Judaism in America
Rabbi Sidney Kleiman has seen a few things in his day.
As he approaches his 100th birthday this January, Kleiman is the longest-serving and oldest active congregational rabbi in the United States. He graduated Yeshiva College in 1935, pursued post-graduate work at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School for Jewish Studies and received semikha [rabbinic ordination] from Rabbi Moshe Soloveichik, father of Rav Joseph B. Soloveichik, at YU-affiliated Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, before becoming the rabbi of New York City’s Congregation Adereth El on East 29th Street in 1939.
Kleiman has served as rabbi of the historic synagogue for more than 60 years, through the Depression, World War II, and all of Israel’s wars. He has also welcomed many of YU’s Stern College for Women students into Adereth El to share in its Shabbat services as the college opened more and more dormitories in the Midtown area. Kleiman stepped into his current role of rabbi emeritus in 1999 and continues to advise current shul leader Rabbi Gideon Shloush, who is also an adjunct instructor of Jewish studies at Stern College.
Kleiman sat down with YU News just a few weeks before his milestone birthday—which he will celebrate with his beloved congregation at a dinner in his honor at the Museum of Jewish Heritage on January 6—to share his memories of Yeshiva and his thoughts on how American Jewry has weathered, and even flourished, over the past century.
Q: What was Yeshiva University like when you attended?
A: It was under Dr. [Bernard] Revel’s influence—he was the founder of the University. He encouraged me to continue there, which I was happy to do. Semikha was tough. The questions they asked you on the final test were very difficult questions.
How do you think Judaism in America has changed since you’ve been a rabbi?
The yeshiva movement has grown stronger. The American people have taken to the life of the yeshiva. They have learned you don’t need persecution to make you a Jew.
How has Adereth El changed since you started here in the 30s?
This shul has always stood for strong Judaism, to be a good Jew in America.
Of all the people that you’ve met, who made the deepest impression on you?
Dr. Revel. He influenced me to continue to learn Torah.
What is the most important thing you’ve learned over your career as a rabbi?
You must have a good relationship with all the other Jews. That’s what Torah teaches.
You met Albert Einstein. What was that like?
They [YU] were giving him a degree. I was picked to meet him when he came to the Yeshiva and take him to Dr. Revel’s office, I think because I was majoring in math at that time. He wore baggy pants. Very smart. I didn’t speak with him much. When he came to Dr. Revel’s office, he didn’t have a gown to march in the parade. Revel got excited. He said, ‘Where’s your gown to march in the parade, Dr. Einstein?’ Einstein said, ‘I don’t need a gown. I see the world the way it is. I don’t need a mask.’ It was a very quick answer.
Eventually Dr. Revel called up facilities to bring a gown to him.
What was Dr. Revel like?
A big talmud chacham [Torah scholar] who was very devoted to Yeshiva. He was a nice man, a righteous man, who wanted to see the Yeshiva’s success and growth.
Tough, but I made it.
What was your congregation like then?
Not too strong. It was a battle to keep alive. Most synagogues disappeared. Demographics changed. We were the lucky ones that survived.
How did you survive?
[Kleiman points to the ceiling]
What was it like to be an American rabbi during the Holocaust?
I’ll give an example. I came to this shul in 1939, on the day Hitler invaded Czechoslovakia. Chamberlain went to visit Hitler and came back to England—it was a rainy day—and he opened his umbrella and he made a proclamation to the world, ‘We have peace in our time now!’ The title of my sermon that Shabbos was, ‘We Will Not Have Peace in Our Time.’ Because Hitler was determined to keep his dirty hands on the throat of the Jewish people. We had to fight him!
A lot of Americans at that time weren’t aware of what was going on.
Of course not! I had to fight them. Even the people at the shul. They admired me because I had the guts to say what I had to say, and that’s why they elected me. That’s why I was the rabbi here 60 years. Very few people have that kind of a record.
Students at Stern College for Women have been coming to this shul for Shabbos services for years. Can you talk about how they’ve become a part of the shul’s culture?
They made the shul strong. They showed that you could be an American girl and still be religious, and that was my theory: that you could live your life as an American and still be a good Jew. You don’t have to be persecuted. You can live in a land of freedom and still be a good Jew.
How do you do that?
By going to Yeshiva.
What is the most important thing for YU students today to keep in mind?
To keep Yeshiva alive and keep Judaism alive. Be devoted to Torah. Be religious. Be an example that you can be a good Jew. Ve-atem ha-deveikim be-Hashem Elokeikhem, Chayim Kulkhem Hayom [you who cling to Hashem, your G-d, are all alive today]. You’ll survive those Jews who do not follow Judaism.
Some people don’t think they make a difference, but they’re wrong. I’ll give you an example.
We had a member of the shul—he was a chemist. Dupont needed an administrator and chemist in France. They picked him. He went there. He even changed his name to make it sound less Jewish. He went to France for awhile and came back to America, and he became a great scientist.
[The first president of the State of Israel] Chaim Weizmann called him up during the War of Independence–Nassar of Egypt was sending tanks to the Negev. Weizmann called my congregant and said, ‘There are these tanks with electronic instruments, they are superior to the Egyptian tanks. We need them immediately! Can you send them to us?’ Truman had made a boycott against sending arms to Israel but Weizmann said, ‘Forget about Truman, you send it.’
He called me up, this guy, and said, ‘What should I do?’ He was a very honest man. I said, ‘It’s too hard a question. I have to ask bigger rabbis. I have to look in the book of Shailos and Tshuvos.’ I couldn’t find anything.
Finally I did tell him to send the tanks. His tanks destroyed the Egyptian tanks and forced Nassar to come to Israel to make peace because he saw that he couldn’t defeat Israel militarily. That was the influence of one Jew here in our synagogue to found the State of Israel. That also was through my influence a little bit. Not too much. A little bit.
So many people say, ‘I can’t do anything.’ I say one Jew can do a lot.