The man I respected and loved for as long as I can remember was known to me as Uncle Chaim. He was niftar Monday morning after a lingering illness. His wife was my mother’s older sister. They were both niftar way too early.
When I was young, I knew him as a tall, impressive man who was always nice to us kids and always had something encouraging and witty to say to us. As I became older, I came to know him as a leading rosh yeshiva who dedicated his life to learning and teaching Torah, a prime champion of Torah hashkofah.
Rav Chaim Dov Keller was very sick for the past few months, but his will to live was so strong that it kept him alive well past when doctors had given up on him. His drive and determination were leading factors in his success all through life.
He rose from being a public school kid in Queens to a leading rosh yeshiva. As a teenager, he would fearlessly fight for what was right. If he saw that something was wrong, he would point it out and see that it be corrected. Combined with his thirst for knowledge, this trait led his rebbi, Rav Yeruchom Gorelick, to arrange for him to learn under Rav Eliyohu Meir Bloch in Telz.
Rav Avrohom Chaim Levin, who was the talmid muvhak of Rav Elya Meir Bloch and Telz, Cleveland, suggested Rav Chaim Dov for his sister, and later brought him to Chicago to serve alongside him in Telz Yeshiva there.
Rav Elya Meir Bloch was his rebbi, but Rav Keller would say that Rav Dovid Lifshitz taught him how to learn a Rashba. He would study Rishonim slowly and methodically, taking the care to patiently analyze their words and make sure he comprehended exactly what they were saying. When he would deliver a shiur, he would forget the constraints of time and carefully show his talmidim how to learn a Rishon.
He would bring into shiur several volumes of the Rambam and show a stirah between what he says in different places. Then, through a focused analysis of the Rambam’s language, he would explain the inconsistencies. He never sought the easy route, always putting in the extra concentration and effort to make sure that everything was clear and understood.
In Telz, they refer to mussar shmuessen as shiurei daas, lessons in knowledge, and that was what Rav Keller did. He saw it as his responsibility to teach bochurim not only mussar, but also how to think and view the world and current events. He would expend great effort to offer clarity in a world that didn’t care much for truth and facts.
A master of the English language, he would spend hours upon hours formulating his arguments and setting them to paper. He weighed every sentence and every word in it. Everything he wrote was perfect and cogent. He prepared diligently for his public addresses, seeing himself as a standard bearer for daas Torah. Fearlessly, he would lay out his arguments and back them up, and when he was done, there was no doubt that he was correct.
He would deliver special vaadim for doctors, lawyers and intellectuals, and had a tremendous effect on them. Many of them became bnei Torah and sent their children to yeshiva. Years ago, he would speak at an annual weekend in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, opening the eyes of people who were distant from Torah to the degree that they would set out from there on a path of teshuvah.
He was not satisfied with the chinuch habanos in Chicago and, together with his wife, invested much effort into raising his daughters. Indeed, each one is very special. His second wife, Rebbetzin Shulamis Prager Keller, was a well-known mechaneches before moving to Chicago. Rav Chaim Dov opened a Bais Yaakov, which was headed by his wife and daughter, Rebbetzin Kraindel Mannes. The school has had a tremendous impact on the city and is a model of excellence.
In the early days of the State of Israel, the Arab countries made the lives of their Jewish citizens miserable and evicted them from lands they had lived in for centuries. They were brought to Israel and housed in squalor conditions in maabarot, tent shanties, where they were indoctrinated against religion.
Yeshiva bochurim and askonim at the time infiltrated the maabarot in an attempt to save souls. When caught, they were severely beaten by Zionist guards. The idea was developed that if American yeshiva bochurim would become involved, their American passports would afford them protection. The gambit didn’t work and they were also beaten, but that did not deter them from doing what they could to stymie the Zionist plan to rid the new olim of their fidelity to Yahadus. Rav Chaim Dov Keller was a leader of that group, which became known as P’eylim, forerunner of Lev L’Achim. For the rest of his life, he looked back at that period with great pride.
When Lev L’Achim was founded, he stood by its side with a sense of responsibility, as they continued the work that he and several other bnei Torah began decades before.
Together with Rav Levin, he would attend the annual Lev L’Achim event in Chicago religiously. Last year, he was weak and unable to go. He phoned the Telzer mashgiach, who was heavily involved in that campaign, and asked why nobody came to his home to solicit him for the event. Rav Keller pledged a large amount of money and asked that the mashgiach come to his house to pick up the check.
Rav Keller would often call me when he thought I did a good job and when he thought I could have done better. He also would call to offer chizuk when things were tough. His comments were always said with love, but firmness. He wouldn’t tolerate excuses or accept anything less than perfection.
Uncle Chaim was a shining example that with determination and effort, there is no limit to what a person can achieve. Once he discovered the world of Torah, there was no going back and no backing down. He gave every fiber of his being to achieve excellence and perfection in all he did.
May his memory be a blessing and an inspiration.