Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l took KGH’s potato fields and helped turn them
into the flourishing Jewish community we live in today
The loss of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l on Sunday at the age of 96 was felt immediately throughout Queens and reverberated in every corner of the Jewish world. But for those who call Kew Gardens Hills home, his impact will slowly become even more apparent.
From the early 1950s until the day of his passing, Rabbi Schonfeld, the Rabbi Emeritus of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, dedicated his time to the community he immigrated to, and where he chose to build a wonderful family against all odds. At his American l’vayah, held in the shul he undertook to build, close family gathered to honor the legacy of a pioneer. Outside, those who knew him best joined, while thousands of other followers said their final goodbyes virtually.
Rabbi Schonfeld was born in Poland and later lived in London, where he married Rebittzen Charlotte “Lotti,” nee Jakobovits, in 1944. Charlotte was niftar a decade-and-a-half later. Three years later, Rabbi Schonfeld remarried, to Rebittizen Ruth, nee Leifer, who had also lost her spouse. She was the daughter of the Nadvorna Rebbe, Rav Shalom Leifer zt”l, a son of Rav Bertche of Nadvorna.
Rabbi Noach Isaac Oelbaum, rav of Khal Nachlas Yitzchok, had the privilege to be welcomed with open arms when he arrived in the neighborhood 46 years ago. “We do not realize,” the rav explained. “We do not feel the greatness that was lost, but within time we will.” A similar sentiment was voiced by Nachum Shmuel Hartman, the president of the Agudath Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, who noted that Rabbi Schonfeld encouraged their group to open the shul 51 years ago, literally just across the street in the Yeshiva of Central Queens. Rabbi Schonfeld did not fear new shuls opening their doors. There was no fear of competition; on the contrary, there was embrace for the continuation of Torah and new mekomos for Hashem’s Jewish children to learn and pray. This quality in no small measure is a credit to the vibrancy and buoyancy of Torah in Kew Gardens Hills and the many Jewish neighborhoods dotting Queens.
His tireless work, from erecting a Hebrew Day School for hundreds of Orthodox children, to undertaking the building of a mikvah, and later an eruv, and encouraging all those who flocked to his doors to embrace Hashem’s love, made Rabbi Schonfeld unique. The rabbi took a neighborhood that was basically potato fields and housing built for World War II veterans and turned it into a model for Modern Orthodox communities around the nation. His Young Israel became the core representation for how a community could be built and thrive.
Rabbi Oelbaum added, “We were connected to him, able to see and speak to him,” going on to describe that the community took for granted such a beacon of Torah thought.
We are experiencing a Chanukah like never before, but the tradition of kindling the lights of our Chanukiyos remains ever-present. Each evening as the sun sets, we manage to turn the darkness around us into rays of hope. Rabbi Oelbaum explained that we “transform” the night into day. “The guiding light of klal Yisrael was extinguished as we lost the one who led our path.”
Rabbi Oelbaum related in the name of the Chasam Sofer that he saw a Torah scroll in a dream that was dressed in pure black. Rav Nosson Adler had just passed away, and it was this Torah that was in tears mourning the loss. When we think about the light in Rabbi Schonfeld, this is the glow that went out.
Rabbi Schonfeld’s influence spanned several generations, where he merited to benefit from many great Torah thinkers. He cherished the words of the Gerrer Rebbe and enjoyed the opportunity to share his Torah. These teachings carried through in nearly every speech that Rabbi Schonfeld delivered. Similarly, the wisdom of his rebbe, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, “The Rav,” were never far from Rabbi Schonfeld’s mind.
Rabbi Oelbaum elaborated with a parable from Chazal of a bridge self-destructing following the p’tirah of a Torah giant. “When you have leaders in klal Yisrael, they have brought down Torah from their rebbeim. This is the bridge to a previous generation, and that bridge collapses when they are no longer here.”
Rabbi Schonfeld was called to the Torah as HaRav Mordechai Shraga Feivel ben HaRav Shmuel Shabsi HaLevi. According to Rav Oelbaum, Rabbi Schonfeld followed in the ways of Megillas Esther’s Mordechai HaTzadik. His lectures were captivating and always laden with a positive powerful message. He was open-hearted and able to relate to all whom he encountered.
What made Rabbi Schonfeld so special was how he managed to galvanize a community to welcome all walks of Orthodoxy. He had the opportunity to speak hundreds if not thousands of times on the horrors of the Shoah. He spoke inspirationally as a survivor on the Kindertransport, helping generations to come to understand the complexities of that unthinkable era.
Jeffrey Wiesenfeld, the executive assistant to Governor George Pataki, Senator Alfonse D’Amato, and New York City Mayor Ed Koch, was invited by Rabbi Schonfeld to speak at the Young Israel in 2016 for a Yom HaShoah gathering. Mr. Wiesenfeld interacted with many New York State rabbis and clergymen around the world, and related about Rabbi Schonfeld: “Aside from his outstanding rabbinic leadership, he had a unique geo-political sense of world events.”
Rabbi Mordechai Grunberg echoed these sentiments: “Our children and grandchildren will not be zocheh to witness the likes of another rav like Rabbi Schonfeld. He personified what a pulpit rabbi was, a type of rabbi who no longer exists in our generation. Rabbi Schonfeld was one of the last sincere rabbanim who sought only to bring spiritual warmth to those in his midst. He was unparalleled.”
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld is survived by his children, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, the mara d’Asra of the Young Israel he was brought up in; Rabbi Aryeh Schonfeld; Reb Yosef Schindelhein; Mrs. Aviva Pinchuk; Mrs. Vicky Berglas; Mrs. Debby Wolfe; Mrs. Phyllis Schwartz; Mrs. Georgie London; Mrs. Tammy Koppel; and Mrs. Debby Spero; as well as a brood of bubbly grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren.
By Shabsie Saphirstein