Rabbi Mendel Kaufman, 85, longtime mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Briarwood died this past Shabbos. He was remembered by his family, congregants, and neighbors for maintaining Jewish life in the neighborhood and welcoming Bukharian immigrants with open arms. “He was a very respectable and righteous person. When we arrived in Briarwood, he provided support and we’ve had very good relations,” said Rabbi Avrekh Kaziyev of Ohr Natan Briarwood.
Rabbi Kaziyev’s primary language is Russian, but he communicated easily with his colleague in Hebrew on Torah topics from his wide-ranging knowledge of halachah.
Briarwood never had a Jewish population as sizable as those of Kew Gardens Hills and Forest Hills, but it has an eruv, which Rabbi Kaufman maintained to the highest halachic standard, checking it personally every week. It enabled families to settle in the neighborhood and bring their children to shul on Shabbos.
Last year, Rabbi Kaziyev celebrated the completion of the mikvah at Ohr Natan Briarwood. Like the eruv, it is also an important element in maintaining a solid Jewish neighborhood. “There are enough synagogues in Briarwood. What’s important is that people attend them,” said Rabbi Kaziyev.
The Young Israel of Briarwood was Oksana Itzchakov’s first shul. “I’m Sephardic and Rabbi Kaufman never thought of me as any different. He brought me a Sephardic siddur and told me that I could pray using the siddur and follow along,” she said. “He also made sure I was comfortable in his shul and spoke with me about my background and where I came from and what made me decide to keep Shabbat. He was very nice and it made going to shul easy.”
Rabbi Avraham Tabibov led the Bukharian minyan at the Young Israel of Briarwood for a decade and regarded Rabbi Kaufman as a mentor. “We lost a tremendous leader. He was a very humble man,” said Rabbi Tabibov. Differences in culture were easily bridged as Rabbi Kaufman taught Gemara and Chumash to Ashkenazim, Bukharians, youths, and Holocaust survivors.
Rabbi Kaufman was born in 1934 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan to Uri Kaufman and his wife Rachel. At the time, it was a crowded neighborhood of Jewish immigrants. The father died when Rabbi Kaufman was only four, but his memory left an impact on his children, who became outstanding talmidei chachamim and community leaders.
He received his s’michah from Yeshiva Torah Vodaath and Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l. At a young age, he wrote a sefer on hilchos sh’chitah and was mentioned by name in Rav Moshe’s writings. The son later held the pulpit at his father’s shul, Congregation Chasam Sopher, which was his first position as a rav. His older brother, Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel Kaufman, went on to hold a pulpit in Washington and later at the Young Israel of Montreal.
In 1966, Rabbi Mendel Kaufman was appointed to lead the Young Israel of New Haven at a reception where Rav Moshe Feinstein was the featured speaker. Eight years later, he moved back to New York to serve at the Young Israel of Briarwood and as the assistant principal at the Bais Yaakov High School at the Breuer’s shul in Washington Heights.
Rabbi Dovi Steinmetz, the neighborhood’s Chabad shaliach, also received an unconditional welcome from Rabbi Kaufman when he arrived in 2008. “He was an amazing person. He provided the facilities with a smile and it benefited Yiddishkeit. He gave us the keys to this place.” At no charge from the shul, Rabbi Steinmetz identified unaffiliated families and individuals and brought them to the Young Israel, continuing Rabbi Kaufman’s work of building a community. “We very much work with the Bukharian community. They are the majority of our constituents.”
Rabbi Kaufman is survived by his Rebbetzin Reizel, his brother Rabbi Yehoshua Heshel Kaufman, his sons Rabbi Uri Kaufman and Rabbi Eliyahu Kaufman, and his daughters Lifsha Zweig and Gittel Deutsch.
By Sergey Kadinsky