H y (Chaim) Miklacki was 85 years old when he began his trek back to full mitzvah observance. I referred to him as the oldest baal teshuvah in the shul.

Hy attended shul three times a day including the shiur between Minchah and Maariv. He arrived for Shacharis ten minutes before the minyan began to make sure he had his tallis and tefillin on before davening commenced. When he passed away this past June at age 97 this octogenarian baal teshuvah — a self-effacing modest man — was privileged to have dozens of committed Jews escort him to his final rest.

Hy Miklacki was born in Bialystok on 23 Kislev 5680 (December 15 1919). When World War II began Hy made his way to the Russian-controlled area and was relegated to a work camp in Siberia for the duration of the war. When the war ended and he realized his family was no more he made his way to the United States where he settled in Passaic.

There he met and married his dear wife Ethel. For 53 years they toiled together raising their two children Joel and Ellen.

They were active members in the shul and although traditional were not fully observant.

Joel became a lawyer married and moved to suburbia. Ellen married and moved out west. And Hy and Ethel became even more involved in the shul.

Unfortunately as Hy often told me “Der mentsh tracht un G-t lacht” — man plans and Hashem laughs. Their hopes of spending their goldene yahren together in health were cut short when Ethel passed away in 2005.

It was then at the age of 85 that Hy became Chaim as he transformed himself into a minyan-going shiur-attending regular at the shul.

For Hy the shul became his new family.

As his son Joel reminisced at the shivah “The community had so completely adopted my father that when I invited him for Yom Tov he’d tell me that all his meals had been booked in advance and everyone in the shul was counting on him being there.”

Indeed Hy became a living embodiment of “it’s never too late” as he was our own version of Rabi Akiva — except that he was 85 and Rabi Akiva was “only” 40.

Hy loved learning and attending shiurim. He was a regular at my Sunday morning haftarah class.

One Shabbos I noticed him taking a rare break just as the haftarah was about to start. When I asked if he was all right he responded with a big smile “Since attending your class I know the haftarah already so I figured this would be a good time to rest up outside.”

Hy had a regality about him that no doubt stemmed from the alter heim yet he also had a wonderful and refreshing sense of humor.

One day he approached me and requested that all those over 80 should receive more aliyos than the younger members. As I looked at him he quipped “Rabbi after all we can’t buy green bananas anymore!”

Of course that was 15 years ago when Hy was only 82; who would have imagined that at 97 he would still be getting many aliyos?

Every year on my birthday I would receive a check from him for $10. He would enclose it in a card that read “Happy Birthday and thank you for being my rabbi.”

If I could write him back today my card would simply read:

“Hy thank you for being you and for teaching all of us never to give up and never to think it’s too late to recommit yourself.

“You were a role model for all of us. We miss you greatly.” (Originally featured in Mishpacha Issue 671)