The inception of Jewish life in Kew Gardens Hills many decades ago brought an expansion of Torah that continues to blossom on the very same streets today. The construction of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, under the guidance of Rav Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, the shul’s rabbi emeritus, took on a greater role as the facility breached on capacity, the essence of Torah and Yiddishkeit forever sown into its very walls.
This past week, I was privileged to attend two simchos at the iconic shul, attesting to its uniqueness as one of our neighborhood’s most sought-after simchah halls. At one Minchah-Maariv minyan, I was able to take in the brightness and beauty of the inner sanctuary as t’filah and Torah inspiration echoed its chambers. When Dr. David Levinson, a shul gabbai, introduced the mara d’asra, Rav Yoel Schonfeld, to learn mishnayos Chagigah as part of a series dedicated in memory of the rav’s dearly departed father, Rav Fabian, I became keenly aware of the full circle and immense impact of the Schonfeld legacy on the shul, its membership, and the Queens community at large. As I took in the architectural grandeur of the Young Israel, I listened with deference to the rav speak of various community shuls’ buildings. I was also reminded that it was not all that long ago that my own grandmother, Mrs. Rita Saphirstein, was a young teenager counted amongst the women sitting in the ezras nashim.
Last Wednesday, bittersweet emotions were invoked when Mr. Stuart Verstandig, president of the YIKGH, informed his membership that Rav Yoel’s rabbinate service will open into a new chapter with the Rav’s impending departure from the pulpit position he has so gracefully upheld since assuming the position of the shul’s rabbi a decade ago. The Rav was an assistant to his father beginning in 1991. Following 44 years involved in rabbinical service, this upcoming summer, Rav Yoel will be moving to be close to family in Baltimore.
On Monday, Rav Yoel, a musmach of Beis Medrash Govoha, penned a memorandum to his k’hilah: “I have been fortunate to have had unsurpassed support from the membership and officers. It is not often that a rabbi can make that claim.”
From lifecycle events to personal queries and halachic sh’eilos, Rabbi Schonfeld, a child born to descendants of the Gerrer dynasty, has long been the destination for concise direction. Rav Yoel assures me that his email, despite its impersonal persona, will remain open for the community to continue a conversation and receive instantaneous answers. In this respect, Rav Yoel is continuing a tradition of his father’s, to keep up correspondence with those in his trust. Rav Yoel has always been hands-on for the many shul programs and lectures, while Rav Fabian, who was born in Zawiacev, Poland, and raised in Vienna and London until 26 years of age, later received a Yeshiva University education, and was a student of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, dealt more with the personal and religious needs of his congregants. I reckon we will be seeing a lot of the Rav in the years to come.
World Jewry has often heard the wisdom of Rav Yoel through his position as Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values and as a former executive committee member of the Rabbinical Council of America. The Rav’s Queens influence has been felt through his voice as a past president of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and will continue to reverberate as he disseminates Torah and writes on inyanei d’yoma in his weekly column as the rabbinic consultant here at the Queens Jewish Link.
Today, as one walks the streets of Kew Gardens Hills, you will find a bustling Main Street commercial corridor with modern Kosher cuisine amongst various community staples. You will notice top-notch Torah institutions at nearly every corner – some blocks with more than one – each substantiating the dream of Rav Fabian some 70-odd years ago. Kew Gardens Hills and its many amenities has also become known as a transient neighborhood for newlyweds as they embark on building a bayis ne’eman. For Rav Yoel, his Rebbetzin Peri, and their extended family, Kew Gardens Hills will always be a home away from home, and their three decades spent in direct connection with the YIKGH will always hold a lofty place.
As the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills addresses a demographically different landscape than the one Rav Fabian saw in the 1950s and ’60s, Rav Yoel remains confident that the shul will continue to be a role model and precedent-setting synagogue. Rav Yoel has long been a uniter for all walks of Jewish life – from Modern to chareidi, and from Sefardi to Ashkenazi – and has never allowed culture to dictate his next move. We wish the Schonfeld family much hatzlachah.
By Shabsie Saphirstein