The family of the late Rabbi Leib Kramer, founder of the first Lubavitch yeshiva in Canada and a legendary figure in the wider Montreal Jewish community, has undertaken an ambitious project to commemorate him.
The rabbi’s eldest daughter, Rebbetzin Sara Gutnick of Australia, together with his grandson, Yosef Kramer of New York, have put together a website RabbiKramersLegacy.com; a documentary film in production; and the writing of a sefer Torah in his memory, which will be dedicated in Melbourne next month. Rabbi Kramer died in 1999.
Next year will be the 70th anniversary of Rabbi Kramer’s arrival in Montreal. The native of Chelm, Poland was among nine Lubavitcher students who fled after the outbreak of war in September 1939, embarking on what would be a two-year flight to safety.
They initially found refuge in Vilna, Lithuania, but as the hostilities spread, the students turned to the Japanese vice-consul in that city, Chiune Sugihara, who issued visas that allowed them to enter Japan.
The young men trekked across Europe and Asia to Kobe, Japan and then to Shanghai, China. When the Canadian government allowed a limited number of visas for yeshiva students, they sailed to San Francisco and then travelled by train to Montreal where they landed Oct. 24, 1941.
Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yossef Schneerson, directed them to come here to strengthen the small Lubavitch community, and put Rabbi Kramer in charge.
A day after their arrival, Yeshivas Tomchei Tmimim Lubavitch of Montreal, the Rabbinical College of Canada, was established, and the next day, the first class was held in the Nusach Ari Synagogue on Pine Avenue. The yeshiva has been at its present site in Côte des Neiges since 1962.
Rabbi Kramer directed the institution for 58 years, until his death at age 81.
As the yeshiva did not charge tuition, and accepted Jewish boys from all backgrounds, it grew rapidly. It always included a strong secular curriculum and, despite its name, was not solely for those planning to become rabbis.
In 1955, the first rabbinical graduates, 10 of them, received ordination.
A movie of that ceremony, which Yosef, 24, discovered among his grandmother Chaya’s keepsakes, will form part of the documentary he is working on about his grandfather’s life.
The footage was shown to hundreds, representing a cross-section of the community, at the banquet held at the Young Israel of Montreal Synagogue. Among the speakers were MP Leon Crestohl; Montreal city councillor Sam Gameroff; and Henry Hall, dean of Sir George Williams College.
An 11-minute clip, including reminiscences by those who were there – among them is Rabbi Berel Mochkin, director of the Chabad Lubavitch Youth Organization in Montreal.
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The website includes numerous stories contributed by some of the thousands of people whose lives he touched, anecdotes the family continues to collect.
Although slight in stature, Rabbi Kramer was larger-than-life for many, including his grandson. Though only 13 when he died, his grandfather remains an awe-inspiring hero for him.
There are testimonials of generosity, kindness and wise counsel, but also instances of practical help for people with business problems or brushes with the law, offered at any hour of the day.
Yosef Kramer is also conducting interviews, and one of the lengthiest and most intimate was with MP Irwin Cotler.
He remembers Rabbi Kramer as “the rebbe for his whole family. I can’t describe how essential, how inextricably bound up Rabbi Kramer was in our lives in all respects,” Cotler said.
Rabbi Kramer was not only a teacher and tzaddik, but also a meilitz yosher, he said, “a righteous person who was always there for everybody. For me, he was a teacher, a mentor, a confidante, somebody that I could rely on…somebody that played a profound role in my life.”
Cotler remembers about 16 years ago when his mother appeared to be at death’s door after a long chronic illness, Kramer came to her home. He talked to her and said a prayer.
“In some miraculous way, my mother went from being a stone, with no movement and lifeless, to all of a sudden coming out of a coma, and talking.” Dr. Joseph Portnoy, director of professional services at the Jewish General Hospital, was a yeshiva student in the 1940s and ’50s.
Rabbi Kramer was “the person we consulted for everything…He always had the right thing to say at the right time. He knew people very well and knew how to reach into the soul of people so that he would make them feel good even under difficult circumstances.”