Milton Kramer, a scion of one of America’s oldest Chabad-Lubavitch families who bore his family’s tradition—and the responsibility that he felt came with it— proudly, passed away on Sunday, Aug. 26, in New York. He was 99.
Few names carry more significance in the story of the Lubavitch movement in the 20th century than that of the Kramer family. Milton was the grandson of Morris L. (Moshe Eliezer) Kramer, the first president of Agudas Chassidei Chabad of the United States and Canada, incorporated in 1924 as the umbrella organization for the Chabad movement in the United States. His father, Hyman (Chaim Schneur Zalman, commonly known as Chazak) Kramer, was Morris’s successor in the post and a dedicated and energetic supporter of the sixth Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneersohn, of righteous memory. Hyman and his brothers displayed selfless dedication in working to remove Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak from harm’s way, first at the hand of the Soviet government and then, is in an operation in which his uncle, attorney Samuel (Yekusiel) Kramer, played an especially crucial role, in rescuing Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak and his family from Europe following Germany’s invasion of Poland in 1939.
Milton Kramer continued that legacy, serving for decades as an active board member of the National Committee for the Furtherance of Jewish Education (NCFJE), at times as its president and most recently its treasurer. Though his father had been involved with the organization since its start in 1940, Milton’s affiliation was his own. Taken by the energy and originality of NCFJE’s longtime leader, the late Rabbi J.J. Hecht, and the organization’s mission, through his 90s Kramer was carefully preparing for and attending board meetings, and participating in the decision-making process. Over the decades NCFJE, which since the 1940s has run the Released Time program for public school students, grew to include dozens of projects in which Kramer played an active role, including, Hadar HaTorah yeshivah, and the Ivy League Torah Study Program.
“He was a real board member, not just a donor,” says Rabbi Shea Hecht of NCFJE. “He felt that if he’s here, he needs to work for the organization.”
“His work with NCFJE was an expression of his deeply felt connection with Lubavitch,” adds Rabbi Sholom Ber Hecht, chairman of the organization’s executive committee.
In 1991, when Kramer came together with his family to receive a dollar for charity from the Rebbe, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson, of righteous memory, the Rebbe blessed him “to go from strength to strength in the tradition of the family.”
“This is the fifth generation [of Kramer] in the United States that’s going to be a Lubavitch supporter,” Kramer told the Rebbe, before introducing his daughter and granddaughter.
At the Rebbe’s direction, Rabbi Eliyahu Simpson, Rabbi Dovid Schifrin, and Morris Kramer started what was initially called Agudas HaChasidim Anshei Chabad of the United States and Canada, which was later shortened to Agudas Chassidei Chabad of the United States and Canada, incorporated in New York State in July of 1924. Kramer became its first president.
“Among Agudas Chassidei Chabad’s achievements during this time was developing the network of Nusach Ari synagogues in America, supporting the Lubavitch organizations and community in Russia and Israel, and facilitating the visit of the Frierdiker Rebbe [Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak] to America in 1929-1930,” explains Chabad historian and scholar Rabbi Aaron Leib Raskin. “The first offices were in Morris Kramer’s pants factory at 643 Broadway, New York City.”
“I thank you very much, my dear friend, for occupying yourself so much with our affairs, which you do well to consider as your very own,” Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wrote to Morris in Yiddish from Leningrad in January of 1925. “It is true beyond a doubt that we are all seeking the identical aims.”
Morris Kramer passed away six weeks later. His eldest son Hyman—Milton’s father—became president, his middle son Abe, treasurer, and the youngest, Sam, legal counsel.
“The Kramer family were the financial pillars of Chabad in the United States,” says Raskin, “and the contributions made by Morris Kramer’s children enabled Lubavitch to thrive in America.”
Two years later, when Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak was arrested by Soviet authorities and charged with, according to his GPU file, “being the leader of a Jewish nationalist group of Hasids, [who] unlawfully organized Jewish schools and yeshivot, where he taught religious knowledge to children,” the Kramer brothers got to work, appealing to authorities and influential individuals, among them U.S. Senators William Borah, Royal Coperland and Robert Wagner. Borah was at the time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Even after the Rebbe’s release, the brothers were at the center of assistance, including providing the thousands of dollars needed to transport the Rebbe, his family, and library, from the Soviet Union to freedom in Latvia.
Fire and Bureaucracy
Milton grew up in Brooklyn attending New York’s fledgling Jewish day schools, among them Torah Vodaas and Yeshivas Rabbeinu Yitzchok Elchonon. Each week he and his cousins would walk to their grandfather’s synagogue in Bath Beach, before returning home to their Shabbat meal.
“I remember as a kid we’d sit at the Shabbos table, each of us had to sing zmiros or a niggun,” Milton recalled in a recent interview. “I had to sing, my sisters sang, my brother-in-law; they all had to sing before they got the main course.”
Young Milton’s singing career did not end there. Two years after his release from prison, in 1929, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak made a groundbreaking trip to the United States. The Kramers were at the head of the welcoming committee. Towards the end of the trip, on July 10, 1930, the Rebbe had a meeting with President Herbert Hoover at the White House. Together with him was a small delegation of American Chabad leaders, including Hyman Kramer.
Five days later a farewell gathering for the Rebbe and farbrengen was held at Hyman’s home at 1866 80th Street in Bensonhurst. Sam was an avid fan of cameras and movie making, and thus a rare 16mm video of the event was recorded for posterity. In it Milton can be seen singing for the Rebbe in front of a jubilant crowd.
My father “gave me a nudge, he said ‘Michale, zing, zing, zing [sing, sing, sing],’ and that’s what happened,” Milton said in his JEM interview. “… I don’t know what I sang, what niggun I sang but I was there and all my aunts and uncles were there … I was actually 10 years old.”
“If you bless them,” the Rebbe responded, “bless them not to be a supporter of Lubavitch, but to be a member of Lubavitch.”
“You have to be a Lubavitcher, not a supporter, you know,” Kramer recalled in a 2008 interview with Jewish Educational Media’s (JEM) My Encounter with the Rebbe oral history project. “That was his answer. He was very sharp.”
20th Century American Jewish Pioneers
Milton (Yechiel Michel HaLevi) Kramer was born in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn, on April 20, 1919, the second child of Hyman and Jeanette Kramer. His mother passed away suddenly when he was barely one-and-a-half years old. A year later his father remarried his cousin, Fannie Zeidenkopf, and the couple went on to have three more children. All five surviving Kramer children, however, grew up as one, tight-knit family.
Though by then successful American Jews, the Kramer family’s roots in Lubavitch ran deep. In the old country, Milton’s grandfather and namesake, Yechiel Michel, had been a scholar and prominent citizen of the shtetl of Kurenitz, then in the region of Vilna, before moving to a nearby village where he began managing the estate of a local Polish nobleman. “He would make frequent pilgrimages to the Rebbi of Liubawitsch [sic],” notes a 1926 biography of Morris Kramer, “first to Reb Mendele [Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch, known as the Tzemach Tzedek (1789-1866)], and later to his successor Reb Shmulke [Rabbi Shmuel, the Rebbe Maharash (1834-1882)], and on these occasions would give generously of his means to all worthy causes.”
Czarist Russia’s infamous 1882 May Laws forbade Jews living within the Pale of Settlement from settling in villages unless they had previously lived there, making it nearly impossible for Morris to reside near his parents once he was married. In 1895 he struck out alone for America, leaving behind his wife, Rochel Elka, and six children, in America to be known as Beckie, Hyman, Sadie, Abe, Izzy, and Sam.
Morris took to di goldine medina almost immediately. A distant relative and former landsman greeted him off the steamer and took him to work, but was quick to show him who was boss.
“Listen, Mendel!” Kramer retorted after a short time of this abuse, “I remember you from our old home; and I know that out there you were not at all as smart as you now pretend to be. Of course, they say that America makes one clever; well, then, remember that I also am in America now, and this American cleverness tells me to leave you right now.”
Morris’ family followed him to the United States in 1899, and by 1906 he was doing well financially, even building a synagogue behind his new home in Bath Beach, Brooklyn, where he could pray in Nusach Ari, the Chabad prayer liturgy compiled by the movement’s founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi.
As Kramer’s pants business, M.L. Kramer & Sons, grew, he became known as a generous philanthropist. He was also a scholar in his own right, rising early each morning to study Talmud with a group of businessmen and workers. It took them 10 years to finish the entire Talmud, and just six months before Morris passed away they celebrated a Siyum HaShas on Yud Tes Kislev (the 19th of the Jewish month of Kislev, the anniversary of Rabbi Schneur Zalman’s liberation from Czarist imprisonment) 1924 at the Tzemach Tzedek Nusach Ho’ari Synagogue on Henry Street on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, a grand event attended by hundreds of rabbis and lay leaders of New York’s Jewish community.
The Tzemach Tzedek synagogue on the Lower East Side, of which Morris served as president for a time, was one of hundreds of Lubavitch-affiliated synagogues in the United States, all of which were disconnected from one another. The fifth Rebbe, Rabbi Sholom DovBer of Lubavitch, passed away in the spring of 1920, and was succeeded by his only son, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak. Not long thereafter Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak wrote to his followers in America directing them to formally organize the disparate Chabad congregations spread throughout the country.
Ten years later, as the Nazis occupied Poland, trapping Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak and his family in a smoking Warsaw, the Kramer family would again play a part in history. This time it was Sam, an accomplished and successful attorney, who was the central figure.
In Out of the Inferno, a compilation of original documents detailing the strenuous efforts to rescue Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak from Europe in 1939-40 published in 2002, the editors, Rachel Altein and Eliezer Zaklikovsky, write that “as we sorted and read and reread these pages, Mr. Kramer emerged as a remarkable figure, whose wisdom, selfless, unceasing efforts, and ability to focus on, and clearly state, the essence of every issue, all proved crucial to the success of the rescue.”
It was Kramer who enlisted the Washington-based attorney Max Rhoade, an expert in immigration law with a Rolodex of influential contacts, to work, ultimately successfully, on the case. Through the tangle of war, international relations, and at times cruel and uncaring bureaucracy, the Rebbe was escorted from Warsaw by members of the German Abwehr to Berlin, and from there to Riga, Latvia, before ultimately arriving in New York.
Only one year after the Rebbe’s arrival on American shores, Milton prepared to head off in the opposite direction. While in law school, perhaps wishing to follow his successful uncle’s footsteps, Milton enlisted in the Army Air Force. Prior to shipping off to Europe in January of 1942, his father brought him to Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s new home and synagogue at 770 Eastern Parkway in Crown Heights, Brooklyn—which the Kramers had helped purchase—for a blessing.
“Oh, it was aweing, it was absolutely awesome because just looking at the Rebbe’s face, you know, it was so saintly,” Milton told JEM. “Despite the fact that he had a physical disability on one side [due to illness], but his mind was very, very clear … And that face, I just couldn’t take my eyes off his face.
“… He was at his desk and I was sitting right alongside there, my father was in front and it’s a scene that I can never forget. And that’s why I’m here because, you know, we lost a few guys here and there.”
The Rebbe blessed him, and told him that no matter what, even if for some reason he would be unable to don them, he should keep his tefillin close at hand. Once in the military Kramer was confronted by a pervasive anti-Semitism, one which eventually transformed into respect. As he and his fellow airmen faced battles, first in North Africa and then in Italy, they learned just what his tefillin was.
Under bombardment in a foxhole one evening they turned to Kramer, whom they called Doc for his perceived superior education. “They said, ‘Hey Doc! we need your straps!’” recalls his son, Jon Kramer.
The Rebbe’s advice to Milton to keep his tefillin near him, despite difficulties, says Jon, was something his father continued to live with long after the horrors of war had faded into the past.
“That bitachon [trust] kept my father going,” he says. “He never allowed himself or any of us to dwell on challenges or disappointments; you had to pick yourself and keep going.”
Returning from war, Kramer joined his family’s textile business, unsuccessfully attempting to continue his law study. When he married his wife, Rita, in 1949, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak sent his written blessing, while his son-in-law and future successor, the Rebbe, then known by his Hebrew acronym, Ramash, was in attendance.
After a few years working with his father and uncle, Milton started his own rainwear company, becoming one of the first in the textile industry to begin manufacturing overseas. He worked well into his 80s, after which he began consulting. He and his wife were members of Congregation Shaarei Tefillah, first in Far Rockaway, where they lived, and then when it moved to nearby Lawrence, for 68 years. For a quarter of a century Milton would rise early to open the synagogue and study Talmud, finishing it three times. And he devoted himself to charitable causes, notably to NCFJE, but others as well.
In 1975, on the occasion of the 50th yahrtzeit of the Kramer family’s patriarch, Morris, the last surviving child, Sam, came to the Rebbe’s synagogue at 770, as was his tradition, to lead a minyan and say kaddish for his father. The Rebbe told Sam that he wished to see the entire family, and shortly thereafter some 20-25 Kramers gathered for a unique private audience.
As Milton recalled in his JEM interview, a few dozen folding chairs were brought into the office while some of the younger members stood in the back. Sam, by then the oldest, sat at the left of the Rebbe’s desk, and the audience lasted a few hours. Much of it was about the work of the Lubavitch movement and the Kramer family’s unique role in its growth, and preservation of its records.
“My father felt it was his responsibility to continue that work,” says Jon Kramer, who as a young man was at that audience as well. “Not a burden, but a responsibility.”
When Rabbi Pesach Schmerling and his wife, Devora, arrived in Far Rockaway in 2003 to establish the neighborhood’s first Chabad center, one of Schmerling’s first visitors was Milton Kramer.
“He came to my house to introduce himself,” says Schmerling, who knew the story of the Kramer family but did not know Milton before that. Following their initial meeting, Milton went out and solicited a sizeable donation for the Schmerlings’ new center.
Schmerling says Kramer would religiously attend farbrengens at Chabad of Far Rockaway to mark special days on the calendar, the 19th of Kislev, 10th of Shevat, and especially 12-13 Tammuz, the anniversary of Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak’s liberation in 1927.
“He felt especially connected to those days,” says the rabbi, “the ones his family had played a part in.”
“My hope is that … the Kramers will always be present in one form or another in the work of Lubavitch,” Kramer told JEM. “… That’s my hope and that’s my aim.”
In addition to his wife Rita, and son Jon, Kramer is survived by his son Daniel, daughter Ellen Gross, and many grandchildren and great-grandchildren.