Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld Way, a pledge announced at the recent Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills (YIKGH) dinner, was brought to fruition this past Sunday morning, August 21, at 150th Street and 70th Road, outside of the doors to the iconic shul that its namesake built. The street co-naming memorializes the Schonfeld family name in Kew Gardens Hills, giving a lasting legacy to the Queens Jewish community pioneer who broadly envisioned the flourishing frum neighborhoods of today’s Queens.
With 60 years of service at the helm of YIKGH, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, who passed at 97, was perhaps the longest-standing and eldest pulpit rabbi in the US. Time again, Rabbi Fabian demonstrated that inaction and silence are not Schonfeld ideals. Rabbi Fabian observed these principles from his esteemed father Reb Shabsi, World Agudah’s secretary in his homeland of Poland, and passed down these traits to his son and successor Rav Yoel, who continues to spread the light of Torah and commonsense values daily.
The Queens Jewish Link has gone to considerable lengths since the Rabbi’s 2020 p’tirah to share the depth, warmth, and impact of Rabbi Fabian. We have chronicled how Rabbi Fabian, through his unique insight, managed to secure all aspects necessary to sustain religious life in our community. From the original construction of our mikvah, to the eruv, kashrus, sh’chitah, and Jewish education, Rabbi Fabian left no stone unturned. Maybe it was the z’chus of sustaining a kesher with the Gerrer Rebbes alongside his revered father that gave Queens its fighting chance to become a mecca for Orthodox Jewry.
Sunday’s ceremony began in typical Young Israel fashion, with a touching rendition of the national anthems for America and Eretz Yisrael, harmonized by Cantor Shaya Lloyd, a lifelong congregant of the k’hilah. As Shaya vocalized these treasured lyrics, those gathered for the ceremony stood in silence, setting the decorum for the program. Guests spanned the gamut of YIKGH’s storied history, a testament to the Rabbi’s character.
The concept for such a dedication was initially broached by District Leader Shimi Pelman to Assembly Member Daniel Rosenthal who turned to James F. Gennaro, our trusted New York City Council Member, to present such a proposal to his Council colleagues. The team, with the assistance of Yosef Poplack, past president of YIKGH, navigated a handful of obstacles culminating with Rav Yoel and his eishes chayil, Rebbetzin Peri, unveiling the permanent sign affixed just across the street from the shul. In attendance were their son Akiva, and Rav Yoel’s sisters Tammy Koppel, Georgie (and Saul) London, and extended family.
As event coordinator, Poplack opened the ceremony with well-deserved acknowledgements to those who encouraged the project, including the elected officials, Pelman (who was out of town), Debbie Weintraub, Linda Teicher, and Pesach Osina, Jewish liaison to New York City Council Speaker Adrienne Adams.
“Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was a community rabbi, a community leader to the local Jewish community, and to the Jewish community at large,” stated Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, President of YIKGH, who personally benefited from the late Rabbi’s guidance. “Rabbi Schonfeld’s warmth, dedication, and sincerity were some of his fine qualities that contributed to the growth of Kew Gardens Hills.”
“Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was the patriarch of the Modern Orthodox movement in Queens, and the man who will live forever in each of our hearts because of the special relationship we all had with him during the 97 years that G-d blessed us with his physical presence among us,” related Council Member Gennaro, who in calling the late Rabbi his dear friend, spoke of the time he had honored him at a City Hall ceremony in June 2010 for his work in co-founding the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. “His contribution to his local community, as well as nationally, and internationally are inestimable. Rabbi Schonfeld became a national and international leader and served as president of the Rabbinical Council of America, chairman of the Young Israel Council of Rabbis, and a member of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.” In speaking of the ever-present twinkle in Rabbi Schonfeld’s eyes, Gennaro added, “I would ask him for his advice and counsel, and he would always lovingly oblige. He made me a better man, a better City Council Member, a better Catholic, and I and the world wept bitterly at his passing.” Gennaro concluded with a thank you to Mayor Eric Adams for signing the bill into law.
Assembly Member Rosenthal explained, “We often speak of the Schonfelds in relation to the Queens Jewish community, but that is downsizing it, because their impact over decades of service and sacrifice for the community has impacted all facets of American Jewry. Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was a true pillar and testament to the flourishing Jewish community of Kew Gardens Hills.”
Rabbi Daniel Pollack, Jewish liaison to Congress Member Grace Meng, stated: “Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was Rabbi Queens. There would be no Jewish community without Rabbi Schonfeld. This neighborhood, this shul, this area is the epicenter of our Jewish community, due to the efforts of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld and his Rebbetzin. I cannot think of a more enduring legacy than this dedication for what he has built. Our community will thrive because of the Schonfelds and because of what Rabbi Fabian brought with his wisdom, kindness, and endless good deeds.”
Assembly Member David Weprin added, “Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld built the Orthodox community throughout the city and state. He was a real leader, a rabbi’s rabbi, a talmid chacham. I recall my father Saul Weprin, who rose to the position of Speaker of the Assembly, would always talk of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld’s leadership and how he would consult the Rabbi on statewide issues concerning the Orthodox community.” Weprin added that prior to a 2001 City Council run, he had, as well, leaned on Rabbi Fabian for advice and inspiration.
Past City Council Member Rory Lancman, now a Great Neck resident, sought Rabbi Fabian’s invaluable counsel and received it honestly and not sparing. In adding to the phrase “The House That Schonfeld Built,” Lancman said, “The expression The House That Ruth Built is one of the extraordinary achievements, the honor, and the glory that Babe Ruth infused into the New York Yankees and that both are inseparable. The idea that the Young Israel, the Queens Jewish community, and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld is inseparable,” adding, “It took a person who was willing to interact and lead and represent the community amongst government leaders, community leaders, leaders of other faiths, to build the Jewish community here and throughout New York.” Lancman went on to call Rabbi Fabian “deeply principled and pragmatic to bring in whoever was necessary to help get the Jewish community with whatever was needed. From now until forever, as the children walk into the Yeshiva of Central Queens, drive by this street, or come into this shul, they will see the name and know and be reminded what it means to be a real Jewish leader, a real New Yorker, and real American.”
“The word ‘way’ in Hebrew has great significance in describing my father,” expressed Rav Yoel Schonfeld. “Yisro told his son-in-law Moshe Rabbeinu, ‘You make sure that you teach them the way that they should go.’ He went on to teach life lessons of how to conduct his life, be efficient, be beloved, and manage being the leader. This was my father’s derech, always showed the way on how to go. He was in essence the rabbi’s rabbi and leader’s leader. If there was one person in the entire spectrum of Orthodoxy that was universally admired, it was indeed my father.” Rav Yoel went on to explain that his father ascribed to the motto of Torah im derech eretz, which was Rav Hirsch’s philosophy of Torah together with the way of the land, be it conduct, behavior, civil discourse, or having disciplines in life to accompany Torah. In every facet of Torah life, civil life, and secular life, he led the way.”
Dr. Paul Brody, Great Neck activist, stood beside Rav Yoel Schonfeld and Stuart Verstandig, saying, “I grew up in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, under the tutelage of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, and I am a contemporary of Rav Yoel Schonfeld. I will always remember how Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld danced with his inimitable hasmadah at my bar mitzvah alongside my father Harvey Brody z”l, one of the early members of the shul, in the 1950s, together with his wife Bea Brody a”h, on February 1, 1964, at Temple Torah of Little Neck.”
The event was also graced by the presence of Rabbi Yaniv Meirov, CEO of Chazaq, who related, “Rabbi Schonfeld was a true fan of the work we do at the Chazaq organization, and his building hosted the first Sephardic minyan in the area under Rav Yigal Haimoff shlita, prior to the establishment of Ohel Simcha.”
Other notable attendees included Rabbi Ephraim Glatt, Assistant Rabbi, YIKGH; Adam Suionov, Jewish liaison to Council Member Gennaro; Tom Zmich, Republican Congressional Candidate; Shabsie Saphirstein on behalf of Queens Borough Safety Patrol-Shmira; Rabbi Avrohom Hecht, Executive Director, Project LEAD; Rabbi Chaplain Sholom Steinig, former Rabbi of the Young Israel of Bayside; Alan Sherman, Co-President, Mid Queens Community Council; Warren Hecht, past president and board member, Queens Jewish Community Council; and Meshulam Lisker, Chairman of the Board, Kew Gardens Hills Civic Association.
By Shabsie Saphirstein