By Rebecca Feldbaum
When Rabbi Shaya Kilimnick took the position as rabbi of Congregation Agudath Achim in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1970, he was the youngest pulpit rabbi of an Orthodox congregation in America.
Rabbi Kilimnick gives credit to Rabbi Seymour Atlas, the officiating rabbi who preceded him, for smoothing his way. “When I went to Little Rock for my initial interview, I was so impressed by the community’s kindness and hospitality toward me,” says Rabbi Kilimnick. “And once I took the position, a core group of men in the shul, who had been close to Rabbi Atlas, showed the same respect to me. They backed me up whenever an issue arose, even though they did not have any sort of religiousupbringing. For instance, when my authority was challenged on the issue of separate seating, they unequivocally stood by my side.” Rabbi Kiliminck notes that he was under the constant tutelage of his rebbe, Rabbi Yaakov Weinberg of Ner Israel, who helped him guide his congregation of 100 families.
The rabbi moved to Little Rock with his wife Nechie (neé Mernick) when she was expecting their first child. (She gave birth to their son, Yosef, five weeks later.) Nechie confesses that when her husband told her about the job offer, she had absolutely no idea where Little Rock was. “I was a bit shell-shocked by the move. After all, I was a Brooklyn girl, and moving to such a small Jewish community was a real eye-opener for me! Yes, we were able to get kosher products, but the items were very limited. And those Southern accents! I had a very hard time understanding what people were saying to me. But, my husband had his heart set on being a shul rav, so I knew we had to start somewhere. I soon became acclimated. The unbelievable Southern hospitality shown to us made us feel like we were part of everyone’s families.”
Rabbi Kilimnick notes that when he visited the North, people would inevitably ask him “There are Jews in Arkansas?” Essentially, the answer was Jews, yes; shomer Shabbos, no. But being one of the few shomer Shabbos couples in the entire state did not deter the Kilimnicks. As the only Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Kilimnick’s duties were abundant: in charge of the Hebrew School, preparing boys for their Bar Mitzvahs; leading the congregation in services; creating a Friday night choir; and of course, counseling couples and families. He also initiated the first Soviet Jewry rally in Arkansas, which was very well received by the local press. But the only way to insure the survival of Judaism in the synagogue was through their youth, and Rabbi Kilimnick and Nechie knew NCSY would be the key. The regional director of the newly emerging Southern Region was Rabbi Boruch Taub, a close friend of Rabbi Kilimnick. Not sure if the idea would fly with the shul’s teens, Rabbi Kilimnick took four of them to an NCSY Shabbaton in Birmingham, Alabama.
What a shock! Surrounded by 300 NCSYers, one of the Little Rock girls asked breathlessly, “Rabbi, are they all Jewish?” Those teenagers were so invigorated by that NCSY experience, they encouraged their friends to join; and Rabbi Kilimnick’s Tzur Yisroel (Rock of Israel) NCSY chapter was born.
It went on to win many awards over the years, including Chapter of the Year, and had quite a few members inducted into the Ben Zakkai Honor Society. Tzur Yisroel did a phenomenal job hosting the Southern Regional
Conventions in 1971 and 1976. But the core of the Kilimnicks’ work, the focus of their love and attention, was each individual NCSYer. They feel that their crowning achievement was being able to send some of the NCSY boys away to yeshivah and the girls to either Touro or Stern College.
When a new synagogue building was dedicated (in the suburbs, closer to its congregants) in 1976, among the many dignitaries who spoke were Rabbi Weinberg, and Harold Jacobs, then president of the OU. On one wall of the social hall were the NCSY awards proudly displayed for all to see. The synagogue also had a state-of-the-art kosher kitchen, a mechitzah that was cemented to the sanctuary floor, and the first mikvah in Arkansas.
Once the shul (and the Kilimnicks) moved, their work really began. Their doors were thrown wide open to the community − and especially to their beloved NCSYers. Nechie never knew how many guests she would be having
for Shabbos lunch, so she always made sure to have a huge chulent. The teenagers usually stayed all Shabbos (and babysat, so the hard-working couple could nap!) There was often an impromptu melaveh malkah with Rabbi Kilimnick singing his own original songs or popular Shlomo Carlebach tunes. “We really didn’t have to go out of town for a Shabbaton,” jokes the rabbi, “we had a Shabbaton every single Shabbos in our home!”
The Kilimnicks left Little Rock for Rochester, New York, in 1977. “Leaving Little Rock was the hardest thing I ever did,” reflects the rabbi. “Our lives were completely connected to Agudath Achim; but we were blessed there with four kids and my oldest ones needed to go to a Jewish day school. That is the only reason we moved away.”
In Rochester, Rabbi Kilimnick became the rav of Congregation Beth Sholom. He still is at that post and his son, Avi, is the shul’s associate rabbi. Through the years, Rabbi Kilimnick has held prominent positions in the RCA, the OU, UJC, and Israel Bonds. He also presided over a very active NCSY chapter of the Har Sinai Region.
As for their future plans, Rabbi Kilimnick and Nechie expect to make Aliyah when he retires in 2017. In addition to Avi, two of the Kilimnick children live in the States: Yosef in Rochester, and Shifron in Teaneck, NJ. Their only daughter, Tzipporah, and their son, Dovid, live in Jerusalem.
Even though forty-five years have passed, the Kilimnicks still have very close ties to the Little Rock community and to their former NCSYers. “It was extraordinary how everything just came together, with the help of the Ribono Shel Olam,” relates the rabbi.
“There are moments in a person’s life when they are tremendously happy, even though they have the weight of enormous responsibilities on their shoulders. The chemistry in Little Rock was just right. It was a magical and
miraculous time in my life.
Rebecca Feldbaum is the author of two books, If There’s Anything I Can Do (Feldheim, 2003) and What Should I Say, What Can I Do? (Simon & Schuster, 2009). She is an upbeat, popular speaker who draws upon her personal experiences to teach women’s groups how to help families who are going through a medical crisis or who have suffered a loss. Visit her website at www.rebeccafeldbaum.com.
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