Founding Mother of the Five Towns


candleBy Michele Justic

What is a Jewish princess? The cultural stereotypes may paint a negative picture, but from reading the Torah and knowing some true Jewish princesses, these outstanding women of noble character lead when necessary, humbly stay to the side when appropriate, follow a mission of helping others, and truly model the eisheschayil who keeps our tradition alive.

It is no coincidence that we lost an eim of our community on the weeks when our Torah focuses on the life and passing of Sarah Imeinu. Rebbetzin Tzirel Kamenetzky, a’h—our Tzirel Imeinu—also followed a course of “Lech Lecha,” going to the spiritual wasteland of the Five Towns to help create a new community. The hardship of finding kosher food and facilities at that time make our current complaints about not finding parking at Gourmet Glatt seem utterly trivial. She did not have to schedule multiple Open House appointments. With no schools to choose from, she helped her husband, Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, shlita, establish Yeshiva Toras Chaim-Yeshiva of South Shore, as well as a girls’ school, which became Torah Academy for Girls. Just like Sarah, Tzirel encouraged her husband to keep building even in the face of challenges, while also raising children to adhere to lives of Torah, chesed, and tzedakah.

Our rebbetzin stemmed from a royal line of Torah and chassidus, as one of seven children of Rav Pinchus Eliyahu Spiegel, the Ostrove-Kalushiner Rebbe in the Bronx, and his rebbetzin, Basha (née Burstein). Yet on the advice of her father-in-law, the gadol Rabbi Yaakov Kamenetzky, zt’l, she and her husband paved a new path for which we can all be grateful.

As 5TJT publisher Larry Gordon notes, “The Kamenetzkys are the ‘first family’ of the Five Towns, and the rebbetzin served as both an inspiration and motivational force during those pioneering day of the 1950s in which their every decision and move contributed to building the foundation of what has developed into an outstanding community.”

Rabbi Heshie and Rebbetzin Rookie Billet of the Young Israel of Woodmere looked at Rabbi Binyamin and Rebbetzin Tzirel as inspirational figures. Rabbi Billet describes her as “A class act. Sweet and strong. She and her husband built the Orthodox community of the Five Towns. They are smart, perceptive, and kind.” Rebbetzin Billet describes her further. “Rebbetzin Kamenetzky distinguished herself as a warm and open person who had a wonderful smile and a good word for everyone she encountered. I know that the older women in my shul spoke of her as one of the women, despite her illustrious family background and the fact that she came from ‘Jewish royalty’. Polite and refined, yet outgoing and determined, she was both a leader and a help-mate at the same time. She was never judgmental, loving all people in her inimitable style. Always elegant and a great conversationalist, she could engage anyone, regardless of their walk of life, and her excellent character traits made her universally respected and a fantastic ambassador for the Jewish people and Torah Judaism.”

Senator Chuck Schumer has represented our area for decades and personally seen the growth in the community. He remarks, “I am deeply saddened by the passing of Rebbetzin Tzirel Kamenetzky. The Kamenetzky family is a shining example of Jewish life, not only on the south shore of Long Island but in all of New York and all of the United States. They have educated thousands and brought the light of Torah to so many more. Rebbetzin Kamenetzky will be missed. May her memory be a blessing.‎”

Assemblyman Phil Goldfeder shares a close relationship with the Yeshiva of South Shore and exclaims, “Words cannot describe the pain that our community and all of Klal Yisrael is feeling with the loss of Rebbetzin Kamenetzky. As a pioneer of Yiddishkeit in the Five Towns, the rebbetzin has left a legacy of Torah that will be carried on by her children and the many lives that she has impacted.”

Assemblyman Todd Kaminsky is relatively new to Five Towns politics but has made sure to visit local institutions such as Yeshiva of South Shore on multiple occasions, assessing needs and issues on a continual basis. He notes, “Rebbetzin Tzirel Kamenetzky was a true woman of valor. So much of the beauty of the Five Towns community that we see today can be directly traced back to her pioneering work. Her legacy, love, and spirit will endure for generations in this wonderful community.”

Though we wished for more, our rebbetzin did not live as long as Sarah Imeinu. Yet, as Nassau County Executive Ed Mangano says, “Rebbetzin Kamenetzky lived almost 90 years, with so much to show for it: a beautiful family, a wealth of good deeds, and a partnership stake with her beloved husband, my dear friend Rabbi Binyamin, in building one of this nation’s largest Orthodox Jewish communities. Her kindness, wisdom, and love is an example for us all to follow, and her impact is seen and felt on every inch of the Five Towns and well beyond; she will never be forgotten.”

Senior Hempstead Town Councilman Anthony J. Santino agrees: “The length of time I know Rabbi Binyamin and Rebbetzin Kamenetzky can be measured in decades, and having lived on the South Shore of Long Island my entire life, just minutes from the Five Towns, I’d often marvel at what Rabbi Binyamin was able to accomplish in regard to the vibrant Orthodox community he willed into being. But I always believed that Rebbetzin Kamenetzky was the source of his remarkable energy, vision, and tenacity. The rebbetzin’s wisdom, vision, and personal strength clearly merit equal credit and recognition for all Rabbi Binyamin has achieved.”

Nassau County Legislator Howard Kopel has experienced the changing landscape of the Five Towns himself and notes, “At the time of her arrival to the Five Towns, it was not only difficult to find ten men who would make a minyan but there was no Orthodox infrastructure within which to raise a family. It was in this atmosphere that Tzirel Kamenetzky together with her husband, Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, shlita, raised not only her own children, but went on to be the matriarch of an entire community. What we know as the Orthodox community of the Five Towns would not be what it is today without her and the children she raised.”

Parashas Chayei Sarah is well known as recording the first real-estate transaction in history, and it was done out of love and respect for Sarah. The Kamenetzkys were involved in many real-estate transactions, building our community from the ground up, with the support of Tzirel, for the love and respect of Torah. Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky was founding rabbi of the OU-affiliated shul, Young Israel of Woodmere, celebrating its 55th anniversary. Allen Fagin, executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, comments, “Rebbetzin Tzirel Kamenetzky was a true eishetchayil for her family and the entire Jewish community. Together with her husband, Rabbi Binyamin Kamenetzky, she helped build many of the institutions that made Orthodox life on Long Island possible. The thriving Jewish community of the Five Towns is a tribute to her dedication to KlalYisrael.”

Rav Tzvi Kamenetzky noted at the levayah that his father on his porch and his mother from up high continue to look at the burgeoning Jewish life on the Five Towns with nachas.

We learn from Chayei Sarah the proper way to mourn a loved one with respect. At the rebbetzin’s levayah, held on Sunday, November 1, her beloved husband, along with her children and grandchildren—who have also become founders of the community—lauded the rebbetzin’s steadfastness to Torah values, even in the absence of formal chinuch. They note her dedication to her parents’ and grandparents’ traditions, manner of dress, and behavior, even in the changing society of 1960s and 1970s. At the levayah, her grandchildren reminisced about cherished traditions such as sharing divreiTorah at her Shabbos table and singing niggunim. Her strength of adhering strictly to the halachos, even while suffering from illness, also served as a strong model for her family to follow.

Rabbi Mordechai Kamenetzky stated that his mother would answer his protests regarding styles of haircut or types of recreation with, “You’re different, and that’s the way it is.” He compared growing up in his mother’s home, protected from the outside world by her loyalty to minhagim, to the cloud of the Shechinah that protected OhelSarah. He also compared the neiros of Sarah to the chassidishe light in his home.

Finally, the essential part of ChayeiSarah is the continuation of the traditions to the future generations. Rebbetzin Tzirel is survived by her children: Mrs. Sarah Knobel, wife of Rav Yitzchok Knobel, roshyeshiva of Yeshiva Gedolah of the Five Towns; Mrs. Esther Wilhelm, wife of Rav Shlomo Wilhelm of Monsey; Mrs. Shani Lefkowitz, wife of Rav Simcha Lefkowitz, rav of Congregation Anshei Chessed in Woodmere; Rav Mordechai Kamenetzky, roshyeshiva of Yeshiva Toras Chaim of South Shore; and Rav Tzvi Kamenetzky of Toronto; and grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

The rebbetzin is also survived by her siblings Rav Yaakov Yitzchok Spiegel of Boro Park; Rav Dovid Spiegel of Cedarhurst; and Rebbetzin Esther Lichtshein of Chicago. She was predeceased by her brother Rav Moshe Spiegel, zt’l; her youngest brother, Rav Avrohom Elchonon (Chuni) Spiegel zt’l, one of the early pioneers of the Lakewood community; and her sister, Rebbetzin Yetta Zaks, a’h, of Yerushalayim.

As many of her loved ones proclaimed at the levayah, may she be a melitzas yosher for us all and may her memory be for a blessing.

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