After a long and at times triumphant battle with bone marrow cancer, Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick died yesterday, leaving behind five children, devoted sons and daughters-in-law, many many grandchildren, and his beloved wife, who has been in a coma after suffering an aneurism almost two years ago.
The news has hit all who knew and loved him extremely hard.
It is all so unfair.
All so unfair that a man who made so many people feel like their lives were precious and vaulable, that Gd had an intention for us all, who inspired so many in his community and around the world even to have a love of Torah study, a love for family and community, and Ahvas Yisrael, to have had to spend his remainng months by the bedside and praying for the recovery of his wife. It is not fair that so many cannot come together to properly mourn and remember him as a holy community.
It is an understatement to say that Rabbi Kilimnick’s memory will be for a blesssing.
In the hours since I’ve learned of his passing, I’ve been flooded with so many wonderful and powerful memories of Reb. Shaya. He was never my official rabbi as we were not members of Congregation Beth Shalom, where he had been rabbi for decades.
But for 14 years, he was my two-doors down neighbor.
For most in the Jewish community, they knew Rabbi Kilimnick as the man in a suit and talit, tirelessley and passionately leading his congregation in services from the bimah, brilliantly teaching classes or giving the most heartfelt eulogies at funerals.
I knew him as that too, but I also knew Shaya the neighbor who, in a white T-shirt and jeans, took pride in himself each year at the skillful way he could trim and shape his front-yard hedges every summer. The neighbor, who, to assuage my guilt, I had asked halachic advise about cutting down an overgrown pine in my backyard that for too long had blocked the precious, short-lived Rochester summer sun from my garden.
“It’s okay. It’s not a fruit-bearing tree. According to the Torah, you can cut it down.”
The neighbor who shared my delight in shopping at Costco.
“I am not a gambler, but boy do I love to blow some cash at Costco!” he said to me once.
I remember the first time I met Rabbi Kilimnick.
We had just moved to Rochester. It was December of 1999, and we were told by the people who we brought the house from that we lived on a famous block because Shaya Kilimnick, the rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue in Rochester, and his wife Nechie, lived two doors down.
He was walking towards me on a brisk afternoon not too long after we moved in. It must have been Shabbat, because he was wearing a wide brimmed black hat and a black overcoat.
“Welcome to Rochester, Welcome to Brighton, you are going to love it here! The Finger Lakes are fantastic and your kids will love the schools here!”
As he smiled at me blue eyes were twinkling, and to my surprise, his hand was outstretched for a handshake.
But, I thought to myself, I thought he was, like really Orthodox! Nevertheless, he took my hand and shook it warmly. Over the 14 years we were neighbors, any time we spoke, any time we had an encounter, he had this way of making you feel special. Valued. I think he made everyone feel that way.
My favorite memories of living two doors down from the Kilimnicks were in the fall during the Jewish holiday of Sukkot. Rochester was the first place we built a sukkah as a family, and having a rabbi next door neighbor, Reb. Shaya offered some great advice for building material options. Each year, I’d watch their backyard. When the Kilimnicks started building their Sukkah – and it has to be timed just right – we commenced in putting up ours.
Each year, when the harvest moon rose in the sky on the first night of Sukkot, my family would be in our sukkah, and the Kliminick clan would be in theirs. From inside their sukkah, we could hear talking and laughter and the clinking of plates. But not before the tenor voice of Rabbi Kilimnick, that wonderfully beautiful voice, rose above our sukkahs as he sang the Kiddush, the blessing over the wine. Sometimes, their grandchildren would sleep in the sukkah, and eventually, my kids started sleeping out in our sukkah too.
Every Sukkot, our neighborhood would have a sukkah hop and we’d either visit the rabbi and Nechie in their sukkah,or, hop around the corner to where the rabbi’s son and family lived. When my kids and their kids were little, we said how nice it is that our kids could come over each other’s houses to play and walk all by themselves without crossing a street.
In the late winter, the old neighborhood, populated by many religious familes, would be bustling again as children on Purim morning would delilver Mishloach Manot. There would be like a line of kids waiting at the rabbi’s door. When you gave mishloach manot to the Kilimnicks, Reb. Shaya would be waiting at the door with a crisp dollar to every giver, so they in turn could donate that dollar to Tzedakah.
I remember the day the rabbi’s children, sold their house and moved away… about 3/4 a mile away to a larger home closer to Beth Shalom.
“It’s so sad, my son is moving away… it won’t be the same, we are going to miss them,” the rabbi told me one day after the sale.
“Rabbi, it’s okay, they are still close,” I said, thinking how far away I lived from my own parents.
“I know. But they will no longer be right around the corner. They are still close but it’s not the same. So, I will miss them.”
Living two doors down from the rabbi in 1920’s tutor homes that looked nearly alike, we’d sometimes get surprise visitors.
So identical were our houses that every now and again, the doorbell would ring, and there would be a young religious boy on my doorstep, a huge Talmud or a Tikkun tucked under his arm, ready for a lesson with the rabbi.
I remember him calling my daughter, with her big blue eyes and rosy cheeks at three, a shayna maidelah the first time he saw her. And when my youngest was born, he attended his bris not as the officiating rabbi, but as our friend, our neighbor. I remember the next week, when I was pushing our newborn Tuvyah, or Toby, down the street in his carriage, he remarked about the selection of our son’s Hebrew name, and the story we told of his namesake, my great-grandmother Gutke, or Gussie.
“You know the name Tuvye, is also Tevye. Like, from the famous story by Shalom Aleichem, Tevye the Milkman!”
I was ususally the first to see him on Shabbat mornings from my upstairs windows as he left his house early, with a relaxed, steady gait, sometimes alone, sometimes accompanied by a grandson, on their way to shul.
Above all, Rabbi Kilimnick in his words and actions instilled an ahavas Yisroel, a love for Israel – to learn about it – to visit as often as possible, to advocate for it (through his years of involvement with Christians United for Israel), and even to move to Israel.
I remember having a conversation with him at an Oneg Shabbat. I sat down next to him to hear about his most recent trip to Israel as congregants were finishing up their lunch and heading home for a Shabbat nap.
“You know, you can visit Israel and tour all over the country and it is fantastic,” he said. “But then, there comes a time when you go there to do some intensive studying, and then, you become a tourist of the internal kind. Through Torah study in Israel, a trip becomes an inner one, into the depths of your soul.”
You see, you don’t forget when someone describes a trip to Israel quite like that.
All Rabbi Kilimnick wanted for his retirement days was for he and Nechie to retire to Jerusalem. Once, from the bimah, and I do not remember the occassion, maybe it was close to his wedding anniversary, because he thanked Nechie for all the wonderful joyous years and said to her, “Every time I look into your eyes, I am in Jerusalem.”
You don’t forget a husband’s love for his wife like that. Such a love they had.
In 2011, the year my oldest son became a Bar Mitzvah, we took a family trip to Israel and planned a second ceremony at Robinson’s Arch in Jerusalem.
At the time, Reb. Shaya and Nechie were taking a sabbatical in Jerusalem and were planning to come.
That day, it poured.
Earlier that month, Nechie had sprained her ankle walking the cobbled streets of Jerusalem. Without having any knowledge that we moved our service indoors, there was rabbi Kilimnick, wandering the Robinson Arch plaza in the cold pouring December Jerusaelm rain looking for us in vain. But he really wanted to celebrate with us. Somehow, we connected and he met us for a drink that night at our hotel.
The last time I visited with the Kilimnicks was a few summers ago. I was back in Rochester for a visit. The rabbi was in recovery from one of his cancer treatments, his immune system was severely compromised, and as we do these days, I sat with Nechie and Shaya outside, in their backyard. He was sitting in a chair with its own awning as his cancer treatment had made him very sensitive to the sun. I do not remember what we talked about, but I do remember the gratitute he expressed: for being alive, for the devotion of his famliy and friends and congregants during his illness. And over and over, he expressed how wondeful the doctors and staff at the hospital were, for giving him so much care.
So, to the Kilimnick family, this is my virtual shiva call. It pains me so much that even those who live close to you cannot physically surround you with love and strength and properly comfort you as mourners should be comforted. But your father and your grandfather has impacted my life and the lives of so many others because he led and lived by example.
I will never forget Rabbi Kilimnick. His memory indeed will be for such a blessing and may you be comforted by the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.