May 24, 2024
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May 24, 2024
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A Life of Remarkable Chesed: Gerald Feldhamer

There are great individuals that often surround us and yet—because of their quiet demeanor—one hardly knows of their greatness. This past Wednesday marked the shloshim of the petirah of a remarkable individual, Gerald Feldhamer, who dedicated his life to chesed and to serving the klal.

 Early Years

Reb Jerry—as he was affectionately known—was born in 1929, and grew up in Park Slope, Brooklyn, during the Great Depression. His life virtually encompassed the entire history of 20th century Jewish America.

Jerry’s parents were recent immigrants of very modest means, and could not afford to send him to yeshiva, so he attended public school. But the rabbi in his neighborhood shul noticed a strong thirst for Yiddishkeit in him, and arranged for the shammas in the shul to learn with Jerry. After graduating from high school in Brooklyn, he decided to attend college in Denver, Colorado, where his elder brother had begun college a couple of years before.

Arriving at the out-of-town college in the late 1940s, he immediately established a kosher kitchen, organized tefillos on Shabbosim, arranged for Shabbos seudos and inspired many of the unaffiliated college students around him to connect with their Jewish roots. Soon enough, the local Talmud Torah hired him, and the young college student with no yeshiva education became a rebbe in the local cheder. One can only say, “wow.” His life—even as a college student—served as an inspiration.

Returning to New York after college, Jerry earned a law degree from NYU, but ultimately made his career in finance as an investment banker—eventually, founding his own small investment firm. Many of his friends remarked at the shiva that no one really knew what Jerry did professionally. His independent occupation may have been the source of his material livelihood; but more importantly, it was an avenue that enabled him to immerse himself in a myriad of communal activities in each of the communities that he lived in, and for the Jewish community at large.

Jerry married late—he was in his 40s—when he married Karin (née Finkelstein), yibadel l’chaim aruchim, ultimately building a beautiful family with four sons and many grandchildren and great grandchildren. Even before he was married, he had been instrumental in building two shuls in the 1960s—the Young Israel of Fifth Avenue, where he personally oversaw the construction of the shul and served as chairman for many years; and the original summer minyan on Fire Island, in Suffolk County.

He organized it together with the late Rabbi Herman Wouk, zt”l, and Rabbi Moshe Tendler, zt”l, who served then as the rabbi of the summer community. It was through this that he developed a lifelong kesher with the gadol hador, Rav Moshe Feinstein, zt”l.

 Russian Jewry

Jerry and his wife were pioneers in the movement to save soviet Jewry. As newlyweds, in 1972, they traveled together to the Soviet Union. Karin was his devoted partner in all of his myriad activities. It was at the height of communism, and Jews were being subjected to government persecution for any religious expressions or activities.

Jerry and Karin secretly brought in siddurim, tzitzis, yarmulkes and other religious articles in their suitcases. They visited a number of large cities in the Soviet Union. They met in secret with members of each community, while avoiding surveillance by the KGB.

In addition to distributing the religious articles that they had brought with them, they also provided much needed encouragement and hope to the people they had met with—most of whom were seeking permission to leave Russia, so they could live openly as Jews. When they were returning to the US, they “smuggled” out a long list with the names and addresses of people who were looking to emigrate to the US and Israel.

This information was vital for the Jewish community in the US to submit affidavits assuming financial responsibility for these individuals so that they could secure permission to emigrate to the United States. Today, that list—the longest of its nature to leave Russia at that time—is in a museum in Tel Aviv. That trip to Russia led to the Feldhamers’ lifelong commitment to helping Soviet Jewry, including Karin’s many years of work for the “Friends of Refugees of Eastern Europe” organization.

 Yeshiva Be’er HaGolah

In the late 1970s, at the behest of several gedolim including Rav Yaakov Kaminetsky, zt”l, and Rav Shneur Kotler, zt”l, Jerry, along with his cousin, Marc Ratzersdorfer, z”l, and several other baalei batim, founded Yeshiva Be’er Hagolah. The founding of the yeshiva was a monumental achievement for the Jewish community which had been struggling to meet the needs of the increasing number of children arriving from Russia, who unfortunately were not being absorbed into the existing yeshivas, and many of whom would otherwise have ended up in public schools. The yeshiva still exists today, and has educated thousands upon 1000s of members of Klal Yisroel.

 Kashrus, the Orthodox Union And Torah Retreats

Among his many communal interests, Jerry always showed a passion in the area of kashrus, so he was naturally drawn to the Orthodox Union, initially serving as a member of the OU’s Kashrus Commission, and subsequently as a member of the organization’s Executive Board. Continuing in his involvement, Jerry eventually became president of the New York Region of the OU—in which capacity he served for many years from the 1980s through the late 1990s. During that time, he spearheaded a program of annual Torah retreats and Yarchei Kallahs held at the Homowack Hotel. For two weekends each year, noted rabbonim and roshei yeshiva would come from all over the US and beyond, to give shiurim to several hundred attendees.

In the late 1980s, Jerry was appointed by Governor Mario Cuomo (and, subsequently, by Governor Pataki) as chairman of the New York State Advisory Board on kosher law enforcement. In this capacity, he helped transform the agency—strengthening the oversight of kosher certification throughout New York State. Through the state agency’s enforcement program, he helped ensure that restaurants, supermarkets, manufacturers and other food service providers throughout the state adhered to the standards of kashrus that they advertised.

At around the same time, Jerry also joined the UJA Federation as a member of the Religious Affairs Committee—in the interest of helping broaden the organization’s Orthodox representation. He later became chairman of the Committee, and through the Committee, introduced halachic guidelines in a number of programs being administered by UJA and helped direct much needed resources to the Orthodox community.

 Chesed Shel Emes

Perhaps, Jerry’s most significant accomplishment was his involvement in chesed shel emes. In the 1980’s, a friend introduced him to the Hebrew Free Burial Association (HFBA), a 100-year-old organization that was founded to provide for the burial needs of indigent Jews. Unfortunately, at that time, the organization was largely defunct and nearly bankrupt. Jerry joined the board and, soon, became president of the organization. Investing boundless energy and efforts, Jerry breathed new life into HFBA, promoting awareness throughout the Jewish community regarding the importance of caring for the meis mitzvah, raising considerable funds to restore all of the organization’s services, as well as its existing cemeteries and organizing annual learning programs and tzedakah campaigns in many communities to benefit the organization. He also initiated a successful campaign to raise money for 1000s of matzeivas to be placed on previously unmarked graves. As a result of Jerry’s considerable efforts, the Hebrew Free Burial Association performs 100s of free burials (according to halachah) for indigent Jews each year—many of whom could have otherwise been cremated or buried unceremoniously in mass graves.

Jerry continued his work for the Jewish community well into his advanced years. He served as vice president of the COJO of the West Side, and was the longest serving member of the Board of the Metropolitan Council on Jewish Poverty. The Met Council provides vital services such as soup kitchens, senior citizen housing and legal assistance for the poor and elderly throughout the New York area.

Jerry’s unique ability to transcend the boundaries that could divide the Jewish community was what endeared him to both the leaders and members of the many organizations, with which he was involved. He always kept his eye on the goal, which was solely to serve the klal in the best way possible. Recalling their warm friendship and the projects that they worked on together, Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel, executive vice president of Agudath Israel, remarked regarding Jerry’s exemplary character, “I was especially impressed with Jerry’s efforts to bring together all segments of the Torah community, no matter their minhagim, no matter their affiliation. He was a rodef shalom par excellence, whose success in breaking down internal barriers was perhaps his greatest legacy.”

 Golden Years

As the years passed, Jerry’s dikduk hamitzvos and commitment to Torah learning only grew stronger. For the last forty years of his life, he was punctilious in never missing a minyan. Every morning, he planned his daily schedule around where he would daven, and would not travel anywhere that did not offer a minyan. If he was returning from the airport in the evening, he would make a detour through Boro Park to catch maariv at Shomer Shabbos, before returning home to the West Side. In his sixties, Jerry began learning the Daf Yomi, and was on his way to finishing Shas for the third time.

Jerry dedicated his life not only to Hashem, to his family, and to the Jewish community, but also, to his fellow man. He was truly mekabel es kol ha’adam besever panim yafos. A consummate gentleman, he was the first to greet every person in shul, and always did so with a smile and a compliment. His genuine friendliness extended not only to his friends and neighbors, but also to their children, who recall how he always had a kind word for them.

The Feldhamers’ hachnasas orchim was nothing short of legendary. In Long Beach, where they spent many of their Shabbosim and Yomim Tovim—and, especially, on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—where they made their home, a typical Shabbos seudah often meant no less than 10-15 guests at the table. Over the years, 1000s of people came through their doors, with many of these guests becoming “adopted” as part of the extended family.

Jerry’s greatest legacy can, perhaps, be best summed up in his own words. When asked towards the end of his life what accomplishment he was most proud of, Jerry responded without hesitation that it was his family. Together with his eishes chayil, Karin, Jerry merited to raise children and grandchildren that follow in his footsteps with lives dedicated to Torah, avodah and gemilas chasadim—which, undoubtedly, is the greatest testament to his legacy.

On the afternoon of the third day of Chanukah, Jerry was laid to his final rest, surrounded by family and close friends. As the kevurah was coming to an end, among those assembled, a cell phone buzzed. Someone was calling with a plea for several men to assist in a minyan for a meis mitzvah—which turned out to be in the same cemetery—just a couple of hundred feet away. Several of the men in attendance happily obliged, and proceeded afterwards to perform the ultimate chesed for a fellow Jew whom they had never known. After dedicating so many years of his life to chesed shel emes, Hashem granted Jerry one final opportunity to assist with one last meis mitzvah.

Yehi zichro baruch.

Rabbi Hoffman can be reached at [email protected]

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