When the news of the p’tirah of our beloved longtime mara d’asra, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, was announced in shul, I could hear people saying, “I’ll never forget the time our Rabbi did...” Having worked and learned with our Rabbi for over 40 years, I would like to share with you my own recollections of HaRav Mordechai Shraga Feivel ben Shmuel Shabsai HaLevi zt”l.
I moved into Kew Gardens Hills with my wife and newborn daughter over 47 years ago. It was just before Rosh HaShanah, and most of our time was spent with my in-laws. When I returned to my apartment in what then was called Campus Hall (now called Georgetown Mews) on Sukkos, my intention was to eat in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills’ sukkah. I went there to eat after work and, as it was quite late, found the Young Israel to be closed and the sukkah lights off. While standing there wondering where I could find a sukkah to eat in, a man walked out of the Young Israel. I asked him if he knew of a sukkah that was available. Without hesitation, he said, “Sure, you can eat in my sukkah. I live just down the block.” We started to walk and he asked me my name. I told him my name and asked him for his. He answered, “Rabbi Schonfeld.” It was a lifetime ago and I still remember eating in his sukkah. I remember his rebbetzin, Ruth Schonfeld a”h, coming into the sukkah to ask me what she could do for me. Both were paragons of g’milus chesed.
Thirty-five years later, our Rabbi did another tovah for me that I will never forget. My youngest son had his chasunah in Baltimore. Rabbi Schonfeld zt”l, who was mesader kiddushin, no longer drove, and was not that well anymore. He came with his son, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld. That alone would be reason enough for me to owe him hakaras ha’tov. However, his response to a situation under the chupah is what I will never forget. As the k’subah was being read, it was realized that there was a mistake with one of the names. I pictured an embarrassing tumult to follow. Immediately, the Rabbi put out his hand and said, “There is no problem. I will explain the halachah afterwards. You may continue.” Baruch Hashem, everything went smoothly and there was no embarrassment. I thanked him afterwards. Both my son and I are still appreciative of the calm way he had acted.
If you take these two stories and multiply it time and again to so many people, for over 65 years, then perhaps you will understand why the greatest tribute to our Rabbi may not be the words that we will say or write, but all of the acts of chesed that were done for him over the past few years. These range from the cut-out bench made in the front row of the shul, to the mispal’lim who helped seat the Rabbi every Shabbos, to the help he received with all of his medical issues, and to the great many phone calls he received from past members who had moved away five, ten, or 15 years ago. Most important is the care he received from his incredible family, who did not allow him to be alone. They were with him 24/7 in his home, hospital, or rehabilitation center. These were all expressions of love, respect, and appreciation for a man who had given of himself to help so many others.
Our Rabbi helped build our community by aiding other shuls to succeed. He was involved in the kashrus and physical security of Kew Gardens Hills. His free time was spent making phone calls to widows and other people who needed to know that he cared. This occurred even when he was sick and incapacitated. However, talmud Torah k’neged kulam. The Rabbi gave many shiurim. There was something for everyone. He gave shiurim in Talmud to men, sidrah of the week to women, Jewish history to both, and a very well-liked Mishnah B’rurah shiur every day after Shacharis. I still remember him announcing, about 40 years ago, that Mishnah Yomis starts a new cycle that week. Thanks to that announcement, I have been able to complete Shishah Sidrei Mishnah many times.
For the past three years, I have had the z’chus to be Rabbi Schonfeld’s
chavrusa, along with Steve Weissman. The Rabbi thought that we were helping him; but in truth we felt that we got the better part of the deal. We learned four or five days each week. The Rabbi insisted on learning through pain, dizziness, and other unpleasantries. He always got stronger as he continued to teach and learn. I would like to share with you one example of his teaching that describes who he was.
We were learning Aruch HaShulchan. The Rabbi liked learning this because he said “it gives the reasons behind many halachos.” We came to the expression “tzarich iyun” and he asked me what it meant. I said, “It means looking into the issue very carefully.” He said to me, “I know how to translate. Now tell me what it really means.” I said that it means looking at many poskim in order to come up with the right halachic decision.” The Rabbi then said, “And how do you finally decide?” I answered, “I really don’t know.” He then said, “I will tell you. You look at the person who is asking you the question and you decide how your answer will affect that person’s life. That is how you come up with a final p’sak.” Having learned Igros Moshe with Rav Yoel Schonfeld for many years, I recognized that this is what HaRav Moshe Feinstein zt”l teaches how he paskens.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l once told me that he considered himself a ro’ei tzon, a shepherd of a flock. That is exactly what he did: He led his flock to greener pastures of Torah, mitzvos, and g’milus chesed. He not only watched over his shul, but he watched over his community, involved himself with Eretz Yisrael and Medinas Yisrael, and of course guided his own personal, wonderful family to be like him.
May HaRav Mordechai Shraga Feivel ben Shmuel Shabsai HaLevi zt”l be a meilitz yosher for all of klal Yisrael. He will be sorely missed.
T’hei nishmaso tz’rurah bitzror ha’chayim.
By David Levenson