A Tribute to an Orthodox Activist, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, Architect of the Largest Orthodox Enclave in Queens, on His Second Yahrzeit

One year ago, our family was privileged to be allowed to enter Eretz Yisrael – despite extremely restrictive rules due to COVID-19 – to celebrate the wedding of our daughter Dana Aderet to Ben Glass of London, who met, and currently reside, in Baka, Yerushalayim, when both had made aliyah.

Among the honored guests at the wedding were Aviva and Dr. Bernard Pinchuk, eldest daughter of Rabbi Fabian and Lottie Schonfeld zt”l, whom I have been in touch with over the years regarding various projects for Eretz Yisrael. As a young boy growing up in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, known as “Pinky,” adopted from my Hebrew name ‏Pinchas, I remember Aviva taking care of her siblings after the untimely p’tirah of her dear mother Lottie a”h on Tish’ah B’Av 1959. At the end of the wedding, I discussed with Aviva that I very much wanted to visit her dear father’s kever on Har HaMenuchos. And so, a few days later, just a short time after Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld’s first yahrzeit, I had the z’chus of being among the first of non-family members to visit the kever of my revered Rabbi.

It is difficult to encapsulate one’s thoughts and feelings for Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, with whom I had a close relationship for over 65 years.

My parents, Harvey and Bea Brody z”l, had the foresight to move to KGH in 1954 from Kew Gardens. When we first came to the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, there were so few seats available that my father was literally told to remove me from sitting on a chair (not by the Rabbi)! That’s how I became the first boy ever to daven at Rabbi Gelernter’s shtiebel on 73rd Avenue, even before his only child Miriam was born. Eventually, as the Young Israel increased its seating capacity, my parents became very active members for close to 60 years, and my sisters and I active participants – and eventually youth leaders – in the Youth Department, where the Rabbi was intricately involved.

My dad was an Associate VP and the head of the High Holidays Seating Committee. There were no permanent pews in those days, so for many years, my father and I painstakingly attached clamps to chairs before Rosh HaShanah to keep them orderly. I cherish the letter from the 1960s that I received from Rabbi Schonfeld thanking me, as a teenager, for helping in the mitzvah of preparing the shul for the Yamim Nora’im, and for my “latent activism!” A few years ago, I showed this yellowing letter to Rabbi Yoel, as I have been in close touch with “Joey,” since we grew up together. We had a good chuckle over his dear father’s ability to “predict the future!” In 2011, when I brought future Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett to the US – with the assistance of Odeleya Jacobs and Dr. Joe Frager – before he officially entered politics, his first press briefing and discussions were under the auspices of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, held in the library of the YIKGH.

My first venture into real activism was actually hatched in the shul’s Beis Midrash with Ira Lipsius in 1985, after a Sunday Shacharis, when we decided to smuggle Judaica into the Soviet Union and meet with refuseniks during Purim. I read Megillas Esther illegally in the Great Synagogue of Leningrad. “Better read than dead,” I thought. It was Rabbi Schonfeld who allowed me as a young man to read the Megillah for the first time in 1973. I remember it like yesterday. For the past five decades, I have had the privilege of instructing hundreds of young men at the North Shore Hebrew Academy in Great Neck, where I currently reside, in the cantillation of the Megillah.

Rabbi Schonfeld, of course, served as the quintessential role model, with his masterful activism for Israel and American Jewry, and for the klal. I vividly remember him telling the story of taking photos, apparently too close to the Jordan border, and being shot at! Luckily for us, they missed!

Rabbi Schonfeld’s leadership extended far beyond Queens. He was heavily involved in national Orthodox organizations. He was the president of the RCA and of the Rabbinical Council of America; he was president of Yeshiva University’s Rabbinic Alumni. He played many roles in the Young Israel movement. He led the Orthodox Union’s kashrus division, and he served as chairman of Poalei Agudath Israel of America. Because of his prominence on the national stage, he gave the invocation at the 1984 Republican National Convention in Dallas before President Ronald Reagan.

Rabbi Schonfeld’s local involvement led him to establish the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. His crucial vision to encourage the inclusion and expansion of many diverse shuls and yeshivos in the neighborhood ensures the viability of KGH.

Wherever I traveled world-over, when I mentioned that I grew up in KGH, people asked, so your rabbi is Fabian Schonfeld? It always made me proud to say “Yes!!” As Rabbi Yoel wrote in the Queens Jewish Link after the p’tirah, “My father was at home with every facet of Jewry.” Rabbi Schonfeld often mentioned and was very proud that he was a “Gerrer chasid.” I strongly admired and identified with that, since our family are direct descendants of the “B’nei Yisas’char,” my father z”l being named Tzvi Elimelech, after the Dinover Rebbe.

The Brody family experienced a multitude of wonderful experiences with our Rabbi. He danced with his unique exuberance with my father and me at my bar mitzvah, served as m’sader kiddushin, with his special sincerity and melodic voice, when I married Drora, and even spoke at our son Joey’s bris milah in Great Neck in 1999. At the bris, he kindly referenced my grandfather, Joseph Brody z”l – whom he knew well before my parents – for whom our son is named, and said that “he never made any decisions without first consulting Reb Yosef Brody!”

Rabbi Schonfeld went above and beyond in times of need. The Rabbi conducted the l’vayah for my dear father z”l three days before Peach 2000, and eulogized my dear mother a”h, via cell phone, on Tish’ah B’Av 2011. At my father’s hakamas matzeivah, conducted by Rabbi Schonfeld, I surprised him by producing an aged Jewish Press ad listing him as the reference person for “reliability” for the Premier Hotel in South Fallsburg that my father operated for Pesach with YIKGH Gabbai Sholom (Saul) Weberman z”l in 1960. It was there that we first became friends with the Rabbi’s brother, Dr. Arnold (Bibi) Schonfeld z”l and his wonderful family. My decision to purchase land in Israel as a final resting place is based on shiurim given by Rabbi Schonfeld on that subject many, many years ago, stressing the importance of being buried there, even trumping kever avos.

On Tish’ah B’Av 1959, the Rabbi taught us all how to react to tragedy, when his beloved wife Lottie a”h, the sister of the Chief Rabbi of the British Empire, Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits zt”l, unfortunately passed away. I distinctly remember standing outside the shiv’ah house on 70th Road, as a young boy. The Rabbi showed us all, by example, how to react with dignity, to persevere, and to overcome adversity. Years later, when our Rabbi of the Great Neck Synagogue, Dale Polakoff, lost his wife Gail, I immediately contacted Rabbi Schonfeld and suggested that he attend the l’vayah, as he would be the best consoler to offer chizuk, having unfortunately undergone the exact experience. Of course, the Rabbi immediately obliged, and provided much comfort to his younger colleague.

Over the decades, I have stayed in constant touch with the Rabbi. Rav Yoel and family members, when sifting through myriad correspondences the Rabbi had accumulated, sent me a copy of an aerogramme I had sent for Rosh HaShanah 1970, when I spent my Junior year abroad at Hebrew University. I had utilized every conceivable inch of space with intricate details of my experiences, not a mere perfunctory L’Shanah Tovah! The past few years, I have had the privilege of being allowed to visit the Rabbi in his home periodically. I had the z’chus of briefly chatting with him shortly before he passed away, when serendipitously, driving by YIKGH, I spotted an outdoor COVID weekday Minchah minyan, and lo and behold, up front, the Rabbi was sitting in his wheelchair.

I will always be grateful to Rabbi Schonfeld for insisting that he drive me, in 1968, to the placement b’chinah to enter RIETS at YU for the oral Gemara examination by Rabbi Mendel Zaks, the son-in-law of the Chofetz Chaim. Having him at my side bolstered my confidence. I also vividly remember his unique driving skills!

I am very appreciative that Rabbi Schonfeld allowed my group of friends and me to originate the shul’s Youth Minyan, in the 1960s, which evolved into the Young Marrieds’ Minyan in the basement – which exists to this very day! We gained valuable experience learning to daven at the amud, lein and deliver divrei Torah. Many future congregational rabbis “cut their teeth” in this minyan. I personally often had the opportunity to daven and lein in the “Big Shul”! I eventually became a baal musaf – and have leined on the Yamim Nora’im, as well – utilizing Cantor Oscar Goldman’s famed tunes, perfected for me by Paul Glasser (one of many successful graduates of the famed Talmud Torah created by the Rabbi and Rabbi George Rushfield z”l) – in many shuls, including the beis midrash of the Great Neck Synagogue and the Young Israel of Scarsdale.

Finally, my wife and I have maintained relationships with Rabbi Schonfeld’s children, continuing our generational ties. Besides consulting constantly with Reb Yoel about matters of halachah and activism, I am in touch with Aviva regarding Israeli activism. She assisted Rebbetzin Miriam Adani of the Kever Rachel Heritage Fund in having our eldest daughters, Tali and Liat, become the first Americans to twin their bas mitzvah celebrations with Israeli girls at Kever Rachel. They twinned with the granddaughter of Meir Kahane Hy”d, the daughter of the slain Binyamin Ze’ev Hy”d and Talia Hy”d Kahane, and the daughter of Rabbi Hillel Lieberman Hy”d, one of the first victims of terror, murdered in 2000, when trying to rescue a Torah from the besieged Kever Yosef. Liat attended her “gap year” at Midreshet Moriah, headed by Vicky. When I trained in Dermatology at Cook County Hospital in Chicago, I interfaced with Debbie (Schindelheim) and Shabsie Wolf. As a member of the Executive Council of Ateret Cohanim, I often worked with Joey Schindelheim, preparing for the Annual Dinner. Lastly, I can humorously say that had I not been on the YCQ school bus when a very young Phyllis Schindelheim first came to town, and nobody – including the bus driver – knew the location of that hidden street where the Rabbi and Rebbetzin had recently moved to, she might be on that bus circling around town until this very day! My wife Drora and I enjoyed Shabbos Tea at the Yerushalayim apartment of Phyllis and her husband Barry, during last year’s Israel trip.

Naturally, when a street sign at the corner of 70th Road and 150th Street, by the YIKGH, was renamed “Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld Way” just a few months ago, on August 21, I was very proud to attend, to honor Rabbi Schonfeld’s memory.

I was very fortunate to have Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l as my Mara D’Asra – a “Rabbi for ALL Seasons!” We will probably never see the likes of him again in our lifetime.

 By Paul E. Brody, MD