Nearly seven decades after he founded the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, a decade after he retired as the synagogue’s full-time spiritual leader, and six months after he passed away, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l was honored in a virtual tribute event this week.
Some 500 people took part on Sunday in the online event, sponsored by the congregation in lieu of an in-person annual dinner, a precaution during this time of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Countless lives were changed for the better” by Rabbi Schonfeld’s community involvement, classes on a wide variety of Torah topics, and personal counseling, which included Erev Shabbos calls to widows and widowers that continued until a few weeks before his death, said Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, who succeeded his father as the Young Israel’s rav. “He lived, he breathed with Young Israel.”
During the hour-and-15-minute-long event on the 17th of Tamuz fast day, watched by people in New York, several US states, and Israel, a series of speakers recounted the rabbi’s dedication to the Jewish community of his neighborhood and of the city, and to the State of Israel, but particularly to his congregation and his family.
Paul Glasser, the congregation’s High Holydays chazan for many years, began the tribute by singing the Star-Spangled Banner and Hatikvah, and ended it with the Keil Malei Rachamim.
Aviva Pinchuk, Rabbi Schonfeld’s daughter and eldest child, in remarks from her home in Israel, called the rabbi “a gadol ha’dor,” a great man in his generation.
Rabbi Schonfeld, in shepherding the synagogue’s steady, multi-generational growth over the decades, influenced many people from unobservant backgrounds to take on an Orthodox lifestyle, several speakers said.
“He was a great politician” with an instinct of when to criticize people’s actions or statements, and when to approach someone with a kinder attitude, said Rabbi Mordechai Willig, a former resident of Kew Gardens Hills who now serves as spiritual leader of the Young Israel or Riverdale. “He always tried to make peace, when possible.” Rabbi Willig, the event’s keynote speaker, said that Rabbi Schonfeld combined the best traits of the Torah’s Joshua and Caleb, the two Spies – among the dozen dispatched by Moses to the Promised Land – who brought back a favorable report about Canaan and tried to still the other Spies’ negative words.
Rabbi Schonfeld, whom Rabbi Willig called “my rabbi,” was a lifelong student and proponent of the philosophy of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, better known as “the Rav,” Rabbi Willig said. “He was always youthful,” Rabbi Willig said. “He was always moving – even if he could not move physically, he was moving spiritually.”
The tribute featured pictures of Rabbi Schonfeld from his early days as a clean-shaven young rabbi to his later years with a well-trimmed, graying beard.
Rabbi Schonfeld, who came from a Gerrer chasidic background, was raised in Poland, moved with his family to Vienna before World War II began, then immigrated to England as part of the Kindertransport program that saved the lives of some 10,000 young Jewish children. He settled in the United States in 1950. The tribute included excerpts from a “Names, Not Numbers” oral history in which he described his childhood in Vienna and his eventual immigration to England.
Rabbi Schonfeld studied at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, developing a close relationship with Rabbi Soloveitchik, the philosophical leader of the Modern Orthodox movement; then in 1953, as a young rabbi, he was part of a few families who founded Kew Gardens Hills’ Young Israel as a basement minyan. Over the following years, the rabbi guided the congregation’s growth and participated in a wide variety of religious and educational initiatives in Queens and New York City.
Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, president of the Young Israel, served as moderator of the event, which noted Rabbi Schonfeld’s “life and achievements.”
Esther Lopata, a veteran member of the congregation, shared her memories of the shul’s early days, when members met in one family’s basement, and of how “not-yet-Rabbi Fabian,” still a s’michah student at Yeshiva University, demonstrated his leadership potential.
“He was first and foremost the rav of some 800 families,” Glasser said. “He saw no boundaries to his rabbinate. He understood what being a Jewish leader was all about. He was not just a presence, but a force” in many local and national Jewish organizations. Rabbi Schonfeld left “a legacy that will continue to grow,” Glasser said.