Streetwise: Paying respects

More than a decade after a street was named for her father, Yael Kalcheim Fink visits it for the first time.

Rehov Harav 88 224 (photo credit: David Stromberg )
Rehov Harav 88 224
(photo credit: David Stromberg )
I met Yael Kalcheim Fink while working on a Russian Jewish project in New York. About a year after we'd first met, she came back from Israel with a surprise announcement: She had become engaged during her recent visit. While telling the story of how she'd met the groom-to-be, Dani Fink, she also mentioned their visit to the rabbinate. In one of the offices, as a clerk looked at her documents, he suddenly looked up and said: "Are you related the Kalcheim who had a street named after him?" Yael answered, "Yes, he was my father." A son of Polish pioneers who came to Palestine in the mid-1920s, Uzi Kalcheim was born in 1935 and celebrated his bar mitzva in the midst of the War of Independence. At that moment, the spiritual meaning of Judaism became inextricably bound with the land of Israel. Though he was a sabra who dedicated most of his life to Jewish communities in Israel, he also instilled, through his own work with the Prague community, a great sense of commitment in his children to developing Jewish identity in the Diaspora. Yael spent most of her professional life working in various Jewish communities in Prague and all over the former Soviet Union, then moving to New York to work with the Russian-speaking community there. Uzi Kalcheim's son, Rabbi Manny Kalcheim, was the deputy rabbi of the Prague community, helping to continue his father's work of reinstating that community after the fall of communism. Yael had been in the FSU during the street's dedication ceremony in 1996, which was attended by many dignitaries including then mayor Ehud Olmert, and had never been to the street itself. With difficulty, we found the street hidden in the back corners of Ramat Shlomo, a large enclosed neighborhood in northern Jerusalem originally built in 1995. By design, different sections of the neighborhood were given to various religious groups, with streets named after rabbis or figures important to each community. Most of this new neighborhood, built just off Highway 1, was made up of haredim, but in the top eastern corner, a group of religious Zionists were also given a few streets, where among large residences the community erected a synagogue and preschool. At 18, Kalcheim decided that rather than join Nahal, the army brigade that was dedicated to settling the land, he would continue to study Torah. Finding that most haredi yeshivot in Jerusalem didn't integrate Zionistic commitment with religious learning, he and a close friend started looking elsewhere for a yeshiva that would fit the direction of study they were interested in. They considered Mercaz Harav, where the son of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of the British Mandate, was then teaching, but again decided against it: There were only a few people there, mostly old disciples of the original Rav Kook. What Kalcheim and his friend were looking for was something new, fresh, a way of combining their religious and spiritual learning with their commitment to the land. Their search landed them in Rehovot at Yeshivat Hadarom, where they studied for two years. After that, they did go to study at Mercaz Harav with Kook's son, Zvi Yehuda, and within a year managed to attract a group of friends to the yeshiva, which helped liven up the place. But Kalcheim wasn't sure he wanted to become a rabbi. He didn't know whether he was fit to be a teacher, and he had other talents, such as drawing and painting, that he was interested in exploring and developing. Kalcheim was especially interested in Jewish thought. He believed that to understand Kook's teachings, one had to understand the foundations of Jewish philosophers, especially Yehuda Halevi, who wrote the Kuzari, and the Maharal, the Prague rabbi who is known for creating the legend of the Golem. He searched for a living Torah, one that connected spirituality to everyday life and to the State of Israel. In the 1960s, Kalcheim started to teach at Yeshiva L'tze'irim and at Mercaz Harav. In 1969, he was offered a chance to become rabbi of a community of 45 families in Even Shmuel, a regional center among a series of small settlements near Kiryat Gat. He moved his family of five children there, and also opened a kollel, of which he became the director. His approach focused on community, and he arranged meetings with the leading rabbis, such as Ovadia Yosef and Mordechai Eliahu. He also taught at Yeshivat Kerem Beyavne, where in 1973 he lost many students to the Yom Kippur War, working later to publish memorial books in the name of many of them. While I am taking pictures of the street, a neighbor approaches and asks why I'm photographing. After Yael explains that she is the rabbi's daughter, the man is relieved and apologizes for having been suspicious. The street is about 200 meters away from the Arab village of Shuafat, and from an open clearing in the middle of the street one can walk through an open gate directly into the village's olive grove. "Actually," says the resident, "we get along fine." "I knew the rabbi a bit," says the man who lives on the street. "It's a pleasure to be living here." But he admits that the congregation is getting smaller, with only 60-80 families left. Part of the problem is that it wasn't very big to begin with. They still have a local kindergarten, but all schoolchildren travel to Ramot. The neighborhood seems deserted in the middle of the day, but one can imagine a lively local street once they return from class. At the end of 1973, Kalcheim moved back to Jerusalem, working as the director of the kollel at Machon Harry Fischel and serving as rabbi of Young Israel in Kiryat Moshe. Over the next 20 years, he was involved in a many activities: Because teaching women was important to him, he taught at Michlala Yerushalayim Lebanot and helped found the Orot Women's College for Torah Studies. He also helped found the first school for religious Zionist rabbinical court judges and was the head of the National Religious Party in Jerusalem. His last appointment was as rabbi of a community in Ramat Eshkol. But no matter how busy he got, he was always ready to lend a hand from hosting a new immigrant to giving someone a ride. In 1989, Kalcheim was sent by the government to Budapest, Bratislava and Prague. It was his first time connecting with the Diaspora, and it moved him to action: He felt he owed so much to the Maharal, who lived in Prague in the 16th century, that he had to give back by helping to rebuild the Jewish community after the end of communist rule. The Prague community sent its rabbi to Israel to study with Kalcheim, and he continued to work with the community until his death in 1994. Kalcheim died relatively young as a result of serious complications following a heart attack. A team of doctors had worked to save his life through several surgeries, but over time these led to further complications. Fourteen years later, a series of coincidences led Yael to be introduced to Dani. Soon enough, they discovered that actually they had met long ago: Dani was one of the doctors who tried to save her father's life. In less than a week of meeting (again) they decided to marry.