The following is the transcription of an in-person interview conducted in 2017 by Rebecca Rushfield Wittert with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, discussing his path to building the neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills several decades ago. It has been slightly edited for brevity, and will be presented in three parts over the next three issues.
RW: I’m here with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld. I’m going to ask him about the history of Kew Gardens Hills and the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Rabbi Schonfeld, where did you live before you came to Kew Gardens Hills?
FS: In London.
RW: What brought your parents to Kew Gardens Hills?
FS: Well they lived in England and my father had family here. In England, he couldn’t really find a place for himself in terms of work; his work was mostly intellectual. He was Secretary of the European Agudah, which in those days was a big organization. Then he came here and finally decided that working for the Jewish community is not going to give him parnasah. In England, towards the end, he worked for a Jewish printer as a linotype setter. He then decided to try in America. He had lots of family here. They were living in Manhattan and Brooklyn.
RW: I think of Queens as being kind of empty then.
FS: Cousins of his lived in Manhattan. At that time, the end of Queens really was what’s today 150th Street. The rest was all potato fields.
RW: I think some golf courses, too.
FS: The Pomonok Golf Course. That’s where the housing [New York City Housing Authority project] is right now. It was all wild, untamed land. He and my mother decided to find some kind of work. A cousin of his was in the jewelry business. Another was in the printing business. So he was able to get a job. However, he wasn’t really at home in his field, which was community work. But he never got into it except on a voluntary basis. And so they moved here. And my brother and I had decided to make aliyah. We were in England, where I founded the Poalei Agudah Youth Movement. I worked together with the Mizrachi organization youth groups and B’nei Akiva. At that time, I was a youngster, so to speak.
RW: So you were not married yet.
FS: No. I got married in London. I met my wife, a”h, in the summer camp. We were counselors at the camp. And in London, we gave birth to two children: Aviva and Vicki. Aviva was born in Windsor. Why? Because during the War the Germans blitzed London with bombs every night, so during the nighttime people used to go down to the subway, called the Underground. The trains were cut off, and they even slept on the rails with mattresses. That sort of thing.
And then, cousins of his went into the real estate business. So they said, “Come along. I’ll lend you some money. And you’ll invest it. And you’ll pay me back if and when.” And that’s what they did. They were the Schreiber family. So we came. My brother and I decided to go on aliyah. And my parents were not happy. In those years…
RW: It was hard.
FS: Israel had just gotten started and wasn’t economically viable. So my brother and I agreed that my parents should go to Israel and see what was going on there. Before we decide. We decided to go anyway. But we wouldn’t leave our parents. So finally, we came to America. Following my parents.
RW: This is what? 1950-ish?
FS: 1950. I came to America with two children, Vicki and Aviva.
RW: Right, Joey was born here. Did you move straight to Kew Gardens Hills?
FS: Moved straight to Kew Gardens Hills because of my parents. At that time, 150th Street and Melbourne where you live was all potato fields.
RW: So where did they live?
FS: Somebody bought the land and put up housing – where you live today and others. There was a big farm on the corner, where we put up the shul, Campbell Farm. That’s where the shul is today. It was empty. And then there was a little white house there. Your father would have remembered it. We had another small building.
RW: Right. I remember there were two small buildings in that lot.
FS: A shed to keep coal in. And the other was office, school. We had a lot of children.
RW: So there was nothing where Kissena Boulevard is? It was all just fields? Did Main Street have some stores?
FS: There wasn’t much traffic on Main Street. You could walk in the street and the cars would stop for you.
RW: Who was living here back then? Was it soldiers who after World War II needed housing?
FS: There was the famous GI Bill of Rights. Mostly when the soldiers were discharged, they got mortgages and then the housing started to go up, including the garden apartments and private houses. People started moving in.
RW: I remember Milton Zellner saying that when he first got married, they lived in a Quonset hut in Flushing Meadows Park. There were huts there while they waited for things to be built.
FS: Today, it’s a soccer field. Anyway, so we came here, my wife and the two kids.
RW: Did you come here to get a job in the rabbinate?
FS: I decided. Don’t forget, in England I was a teacher for a Jewish high school. I taught Chumash, Gemara, French, Latin. I took Latin in college in London. I forgot most of it. And Greek. Greek I can’t even read any more. My Latin is so-so. I’d never pass an exam today. But I had decided while still in England to enter the teaching or rabbinic profession. I had a very good old friend of mine from England who’d lived in America before, named Izzy Krieger. The famous butcher store in Washington Heights – Krieger and Sasson. That’s when the Breuer k’hilah was just coming up.
Anyway, so we came here. I entered Yeshiva University. Since I already had my academic degree from the University of London, I was advised by educators if you want to enter the teaching profession, it pays to have a general degree. In that degree, you took three topics. I knew I was going to work as a teacher, so I had a General Degree in French, German, and Hebrew.
But I also had decided that I was going to go to Yeshiva University. In England, I had been a rabbi in a small shul. What’s interesting is, in England, no school gave you the title “Rabbi.” Because the Chief Rabbis of England many years before that, the Adler Family, said “no rabbinic degrees are given to anybody. There’s one Chief Rabbi: Nathan Adler and Marcus Adler.” The shuls were served by what they called “Ministers.” You’d get a certificate of Religious Minister. You could learn for s’michah, but you couldn’t get s’michah. Rabbis wouldn’t bother to get s’michah.
RW: When you went to YU, were you learning full time or were you working as a teacher?
FS: That’s a good question. When I was in Yeshiva University, I was married. I had two children already. I needed to make a living. My parents weren’t making enough to support me. However, they bought a house – 147-56 70th Road – across the street from where YCQ is today. At that time, it was greenhouses. My aunt’s two other friends bought the house. It was a three-family house.
RW: Were you living in one floor of that house?
FS: Meanwhile, my mother had died and my father was alone. My wife a”h and I decided to move in with him to keep house for him. Meanwhile, I went to Yeshiva University while she ran the house. My father at that time had gone into real estate – sort of. He made enough to support himself and us.
RW: When you went to YU, did you get into Rabbi Soloveitchik’s shiur right away?
FS: When I went to YU, I already had the minister’s certificate. And I came in to see Dr. Belkin, the President, who had never seen me before. But I had heard of him. I said, “Look, I come from England. I’d like to get s’michah and become a student at YU. I showed him letters of recommendation I had from rabbanim in England. We spent an hour together talking, and apparently I made a good impression on him. And he made a good impression on me. We hit it off right then and there. He said, “Become a student here. We’ll find a part-time job for you.” They did that for many students who had gone through the war and hadn’t had a chance to get any education. So, I got a job. I was accepted by YU and was put into the shiur of Rabbi Dovid Lifshitz, a very fine man. There were no formalities; they accepted you as a student. Rabbi Lifshitz was the first year s’michah shiur. Dr. Belkin then asked, “Anything else I can do for you?” I said, “Yes. I was hoping to get into Rabbi Soloveitchik’s shiur.”
Mendel Zaks, the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim, was in charge of assigning students to shiur. I said to him, “Reb Mendel, I want to be in the shiur of Rabbi Soloveitchik.” So they assigned me to the shiur of Rav Soloveitchik, but in the afternoon, I didn’t have to go to the college, because I had a degree already from the University of London. I wanted s’michah from YU. So, for the next few years, I was in the shiur of Rav Soloveitchik. Officially for almost three years. Unofficially, for the rest of my life and his life.
Then I got a job teaching in a yeshivah in the Bronx. Zichron Moshe, I think it was called. I taught in the afternoon. In fact, there are one or two people in shul who were students of mine in that yeshivah. I then got a job in Great Neck. Temple Israel of Great Neck was looking for an Assistant Principal in the Hebrew School and a Youth Director. This all happened quickly. I came to Great Neck. I didn’t know much about the Reform or Conservative. In England, either you were Orthodox or nothing.
RW: Right. So at Temple…?
FS: I got this job as Assistant Principal in the Hebrew School and Director of Youth Activities. At that time, the Jews in Great Neck were very wealthy and originally came from the Bronx and other places. I started working there as Youth Director. We were living in my father’s house across the street from YCQ. It went on for a little while. Then, I was saying Kaddish for my mother. The only place where you could find a minyan was the Jewish Center on Main Street. I went there during the week. Shabbos we went to Rabbi Gelernter’s shtiebel, which was on the other side of Parsons. By the time we came, he moved closer to 78th. So Shabbos we davened there; they had about 20 people.
RW: And Rabbi Kirshblum was there back then?
FS: Kirshblum’s original center was on Park Drive East. Then they moved onto Main Street and he started the Jewish Center of Kew Gardens Hills. Being a capable, personable man, Rabbi Kirshblum, and personally frum, the Jewish Center became the center in Kew Gardens Hills. That was the time when the Jews who historically lived in the Bronx and in Brooklyn, East New York…
RW: Moved here.
FS: Who had a pretty good Jewish background – but not strong enough. But this was the only game in town during the week. Shabbos we went to Rabbi Gelernter.
RW: So when did people start to want to start Young Israel?
FS: Two or three years before, a few people not here anymore, Moshe Propp and others, said let’s build a Young Israel. This is the right place and time. It failed after a few weeks; couldn’t get a minyan. And when I came, I remember one Shabbos in Rabbi Gelernter’s shul when I met Leon Blatt. Leon and I hit it off right away. He said, “You know, maybe we should start a Young Israel again.” I was at YU in the s’michah program. Just the right kind of a person at the time. That’s how they got started.
RW: I know Nat Saperstein was one.
FS: Nat Saperstein was among those. There were 11 families interested. One was the Lopatas. Simon – not his parents. Dave Lyman. There were about a dozen people. So where are we going to daven? The Sapersteins, in an incredible act of vision, had a basement – that basement became the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. At that time, the National Council was a very important organization. Today it’s not. Today, it’s what it is. So we started Shabbos B’reishis.
RW: 1951? I think.
FS: 1951. We davened in Nat Saperstein’s basement. I acted as the unpaid rabbi. I didn’t have s’michah yet. This was six months before. We had a little shul. We davened Shabbos in the morning only. We started some activities. The rest is history.
RW: And Kew Gardens Hills then was getting more built up. More people were coming.
FS: More people were coming. Some chasidic people, not many. They davened in Rabbi Gelernter. Then we had the average American Jew who knew he was Jewish. Yom Kippur. Maybe Shabbos once in a while. But they wanted their children to be Jewish and needed a Hebrew school, and the Hebrew school of the Jewish Center was either too far or they didn’t want it in the Conservative temple. They weren’t Orthodox, but still the name. I got s’michah then. It was 1952.
RW: Was it a given that you were going to stay and be a rabbi here?
FS: Well, to be a rabbi, yes – but the question was where. When I got s’michah, Yeshiva University wanted to send me to Portland, Oregon. There’s a nice Jewish community. They needed a young rabbi.
RW: You’d be far from your father.
FS: Exactly. At that time we had started the Young Israel. My father said, “Look. This Young Israel is not going to go anywhere. It’s too small. You go to Portland. Portland has Jews.” I didn’t want to, thank G-d. My father didn’t have confidence that a handful of people could make a shul. So we had to buy some. We had to put up a building to start. It was built in 1956.
RW: There were more families by then.
FS: More families had come and the Young Israel attracted people. We ended up at that time with 70, 80 families. Then it took off like a plane.
RW: So how did you raise the money to build the building?
FS: Good question. You could ask this about any Jewish institution. How did we raise the money? Some people gave generous building fund gifts. We decided to have a drive to buy redeemable bonds. Ruby Ulman was one of those first ones that did it.
RW: Was Mr. Gluck living here then?
FS: Nooo. He lived in Brooklyn. As time went on, people moved in. The Kraut family. Some with money, some without money. With the help of G-d, that’s where it all began. Meanwhile, I was serving as the part-time rabbi.
RW: Were you still working at the Hebrew School as the principal?
FS: Yeah. At that time, Dr. Belkin called me up again and he said, “Look. You have s’michah now. Now we can send you to bigger congregations.” One was in Winnipeg, Canada, where my father had a good friend who lived. But I wasn’t going to go to Winnipeg. So later, Rabbi Soloveitchik said – by that time I’d become close to him – “I’m in Boston. Boston is surrounded by a lot of smaller Jewish communities. I always like to place my students around me.” I was a serious candidate for a job in Worcester, Massachusetts, a nice Jewish town. I went to Worcester for Shabbos to see what it was like. It was an interesting experience. Rabbi Soloveitchik wanted me to apply for the job there. That’s where I met Shifra Witty for the first time. The shul that I went to for Shabbos was Orthodox. The shamas, his name was Cohen, I think. He was from Yerushalayim, and he had little children running around. One of them was Shifra Witty. Yes, that’s how it all began. Things did not develop right then. But if G-d helps you, they develop in the right direction.
RW: You didn’t take the job in Worcester.
FS: No. At that time, I was already at the Young Israel, unpaid. We had started our Hebrew school and charged tuition: $70 a year. That enabled us to cover the budget; we didn’t need too much. And we had drives.
RW: So who did take the job in Worcester? Do you know?
FS: Yes. A friend of mine: Rabbi Joseph Gold. He swore to me he’d never be a rabbi. He didn’t like it. He took the job and was there many, many years.
RW: So you stayed here with the Young Israel.
FS: I said to my father, “I like it here. I see a chance of growth here for the community, for me.”
RW: At that time were there any kosher establishments in Queens? A bakery? A butcher?
FS: I saw my father wasn’t too hopeful. You’re never going to get anywhere. In Worcester you’ll have all sorts. Another shul in Oregon. But I didn’t take any. So I put my trust in the Young Israel. A man called Moe Ciner with a large family. Simon Lopata, from a young married couple. They convinced me to stay. “Take your chance with us.” And I did. It developed.
RW: When did the kosher butcher come? The one before Sam Brach.
FS: When I came here to Kew Gardens Hills, don’t forget it ended at 150th Street. There was Queens College, but it was not much of a college in those days.
RW: I’m thinking in terms of for a Jewish community to grow, it has to have amenities. And a butcher is a big one.
FS: The first year or so, people who were really strict Orthodox bought their meat elsewhere, including a butcher store on the Lower East Side. Some kosher butchers here, frankly you couldn’t trust. They were closed Shabbos because this is a butcher store. I used to come home from shul and see their trucks make deliveries and the butcher is standing there. There was no bakery. So people got their kosher food supplies going elsewhere. They’d go to Manhattan, Brooklyn.
RW: When did the first trustworthy kosher butcher come in?
FS: I forget what year, but I remember the name: Hermann. He later became very wealthy in real estate. Shevach High School, when you pass next time, it says Hermann. He was the one who gave the money.
RW: So when did Sam Brach come to work?
FS: Good question. Sam Brach bought Hermann’s store, which was near the cemetery, and opened a butcher store. Nobody knew who he was.
RW: We have this funny story in my family about Sam Brach – which is out of line here, but – when he was thinking of opening the kosher pre-packaged meat business, he asked my father, “Should I go into the packaged meat business?” My father said, “Sam, you have a nice life. Why do you need the aggravation?” But Sam went into the packaged meat business and became very wealthy. So we always called it the misnagdishe brachah - you do the opposite of what the person tells you. Then one day I was in Brach’s and I heard his daughter talking with someone and saying that when her father was going into the business, he asked the Satmar Rebbe what he should do and the Satmar Rebbe told him to go into the business. And he listened, so it’s not really the misnagdishe brachah.
To be continued next week…