Rabbi David Keleti: A Jew with a Mission
Hashem does not create doubles. Each of us bears the imprint of the tzelem Elokim, and yet each is different. No two Jews are born with precisely the same mission in life.
The discovery of that mission is one of our most important tasks in life. Yet it is far from easy. We are not born with a mission statement stamped on. Sometimes we have to rely on the slightest of hints.
Rabbi David Keleti did not discover his particular mission until he was well into his fifties. It is not that he had done nothing until then. He was a respected maggid shiur in Yeshivas Me'oros HaTorah in the Jerusalem suburb of Telshe Stone.
When he thought about himself, Rabbi Keleti realized that he possessed a rare intersection of two unrelated skill sets. On the one hand, he had been zocheh to learn Torah at a high level for decades, beginning with being a close student of Reb Nachum Partzovitz, the late Mirrer Rosh Yeshiva. And he is a native speaker of Hungarian. He was born in the Debrecener region of Hungary and made aliyah with his parents when he was five.
Besides the rare combination today of Torah scholarship and fluency in Hungarian, the third element driving Rabbi Keleti are the feelings of a child of Holocaust survivors. His father lost his wife and three children in Auschwitz, and was already 47 years old when he married a second time to his first wife's younger sister. Growing up, Rabbi Keleti heard from his mother how the Jews of her town of Foldes had to leave the keys to their homes on a table prior to boarding the trains to Auschwitz, while their gentile neighbors clapped.
TODAY THERE ARE approximately 90,000 Jews in Budapest, Hungary's capital and largest city. Even in the time of the Chasam Sofer, Budapest was a Neolog stronghold. Virtually all the observant Jews remaining in Hungary after the Holocaust fled during the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, before it was put down by the Soviets. Thus those Jews remaining in Hungary today have been cut off from any trace of Judaism for three generations, and in many cases much longer.
One of Rabbi Keleti's poignant childhood memories is of his piano teacher in Haifa, another Hungarian immigrant. One spring, the man asked him, "What's exactly is Pesach that everyone is talking about?" That question showed him how far removed from any trace of Torah a Jew can be.
Many of Rabbi Keleti's students grew up unaware that they were Jewish. Dennis, the CEO of Hungary's second largest construction company, only discovered that he is Jewish when he called a classmate a "dirty Jew" in the midst of a playground scuffle. His teacher reported the incident to Dennis's father, who took him aside that evening and told him that he too is Jewish. Another of Rabbi Keleti's students was plagued from the age of 16 by the question, "Who am I?" She brought Rabbi Keleti a document in which her great-grandmother was listed as an Israelite. But her maternal grandmother was baptized at birth and listed as a Catholic. Yet somehow in her quest for identity she found her way to Rabbi Keleti.
Lack of awareness of even the basic fact they are Jewish is not uncommon in Hungary. Mishpacha recently ran a feature on Cosnad Szegedi, a rising star in the anti-Semitic Jobbik Party, until he discovered he is Jewish.
SUCH IS THE COMMUNITY TO WHICH Rabbi Keleti first decided to bring Torah seven years ago. The original contact was made by a former chavrusah, Reb Shlomo Jacobson. Reb Shlomo introduced him to Rabbi Shlomo Mandel of Toronto, who supervises many of philanthropist Albert Reichmann's projects in Eastern Europe, including a Jewish school in Budapest.
Originally Rabbi Keleti travelled to Budapest one week a month to give shiurim. Subsequently, after consulting with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv and yblcht'a, Rabbi Ahron Leib Steinman, he opened a kollel with six avreichim from Israel. Rabbi Elyashiv told him, "This is a matter of saving an entire tzibbur (community), a very great thing. It cannot be shirked."
Eventually, the avreichim all returned to Israel because there were no suitable schools for their children in Budapest. Rabbi Keleti found himself all alone. His wife does not speak Hungarian, and in any event her Israeli paycheck is the family's only regular source of income.
He felt that he had no choice but to stay. To leave, he explained to me, would put him in the position of those who could have stopped the trains to Auschwitz but didn't. He understands completely the pain of Reb Michoel Ber Weismandl's unheeded cry. At one point, Rabbi Mandel confided to me, Rav Steinman had to order Rabbi Keleti not to mortgage his home to help finance the program.
When he first discovered his mission, Rabbi Keleti never dreamed that it would mean seeing his wife only every couple of months and his children and grandchildren even less frequently. But as painful as that separation is, the necessity of stopping the teaching Torah that he loves to roam the globe in search of the money to keep his program going is even more so. At the outset, he reasoned that if he was willing to be moser nefesh to live in Budapest and could show results from his efforts that wealthy Jews with an even greater connection to Hungary than he would surely generously support his efforts.
It hasn't quite worked out that way. Throughout Hungary, millions of dollars has been spent to restore beautiful old shuls to be seen only by the gentile caretaker and an occasional visitor from abroad in towns long empty of Jews Similarly kivrei avos have been refurbished a great expense. But not a fraction of the money lavished on the memory of Jews who once lived in Hungary is being spent on reviving 90,000 living Jews, the last flickering remnants of a once glorious community. (Rabbi Keleti's organization, Lativ, stands for L'Maan Tichye Yehudit B'Hungary – To revive Judaism in Hungary.)
HAD RABBI KELETI seen no success his frustration at the time spent away from Budapest would be less. But he has a built a community of 130 Jews, all of whom are learning every week and many every day. That community includes an extremely high percentage of academics and professionals. Rabbi Dovid Gottlieb, who was the guest lecturer at a recent Shabbaton, told me that his translator held a PhD. in math from Cambridge University. He was extremely impressed by sophistication of the questions asked after his lectures.
Rabbi Keleti's dignified, soft-spoken demeanor, absent the slightest trace of charisma, appears to be well-suited to his Hungarian students. "They cannot be pushed," he tells me. For months after a famous guest speaker spoke passionately against assimilation, his students could not stop talking about the "racist" rabbi.
Only Torah learning works, Rabbi Keleti has found. And that is what he offers, day and night, in the beautiful first-floor facilities off an office building owned by Israeli businessman Motti Zisser. There Rabbi Keleti is to be found teaching and learning all day when he is in Budapest. Sometimes he steals a few hours to learn in together with Rabbi Shmuel Yehoshua Domen, a Hungarian-born avreich, who learned for many years in Yeshiva Givat Shaul, before returning to Hungary out of the same sense of obligation that drives Rabbi Keleti. But most often he is giving shiurim.
In place of the kollel of Israeli avreichim, Rabbi Keleti now has a kollel consisting of seven Hungarian-born avreichim, whom he has nurtured along the way. Three of his students lecture in other shuls in Budapest. Over the past few years, he has made 11 weddings between his students, probably twice the number of the rest of the small Orthodox community in Budapest. Every month he publishes 600 copies of Mayaanos, a magazine for the community, with articles about the glorious history of Hungarian Jewry, the holidays, practical halacha, and upcoming communal events.
Rabbi Gottlieb told me that the effectiveness of Rabbi Keleti's method of connecting through Torah learning can be readily discerned. He came to Hungary for one of the periodic Shabbos retreats that Rabbi Keleti runs for his students. It took place in a castle transformed into a hotel on a scenic rural estate. During World War II that particular castle served as the residence of Hungary's dictator and many anti-Semitic decrees were signed there.
"You could see how totally attached to him his students were," says Rabbi Gottlieb. They quote him constantly: "Rabbi Keleti says this;" "Rabbi Keleti says that."
Rabbi Aryeh Friedman, the Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah in San Paulo, was another recent scholar-in-residence at a Shabbos retreat. (Rabbi Mordechai Neugorshol, Rabbi Shalom Severnik, Rabbi Mordechai Friedman, and our own Rabbi Moshe Grylak are other former guest lecturers.)
"I also built a yeshiva from five bochurim to seventy," Rabbi Friedman told me. "But I had lots of help, particularly financial. If I make a Shabbaton, everything is fully arranged when I arrive, and all I have to worry about is my lecturers. Rabbi Keleti does everything. He kashers the kitchen, arranges the food, and oversees every little detail."
Besides the Shabbos retreats, every year Rabbi Keleti arranges a long trip to different Jewish population center to give his students a sense of being part of a larger Jewish world. In Gateshead, Rabbi Akiva Ziskind's played host. The men heard a shiur from Rav Ezriel Rosenbaum, a native of Hungary and a maggid shiur in Gateshead Yeshiva and the women from Rebbetzin Katz, wife of Rabbi Avrohom Katz, head of the Beis Chaya Rochel Seminary, a talk in Hungarian. They have also been hosted Manchester by Rabbi Ahron Kampf of Aish HaTorah, and in London by the Jewish Learning Exchange, with shiurim from Rabbi Akiva Tatz.
FINDING ONE'S MISSION does not ensure that the path will be easy or even that one will be successful. But knowing that there is an important task in the world that by virtue of one's special circumstances no one else is as succeed at provides the most precious reward of all – the certainty that Hashem put one in the world for a purpose.
Rabbi David Keleti is the proof.