It is said somewhere that when a talmid chacham passes, it is like the sun setting at mid-day. (See Yirmiyahu 15:9.) Rav Yaakov Ruderman zt”l, legendary founding Rosh HaYeshivah of the Ner Yisroel Rabbinical College, explained what the connection is between a premature sunset and the passing of a Torah scholar. When the sun unexpectedly sets in the middle of the day, said Rav Ruderman, people witness this unusual event and wonder with great trepidation what will be tomorrow. Will the sun rise again? How can we move on, following the departure of a Torah leader? What will the morrow bring?
My father zt”l left a 70-year legacy of leadership in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. I had the privilege of assisting him since 1991. I then served as full-time rabbi since 2011.
My father’s departure from the rabbinate was, baruch Hashem, not traumatic. There was a beautiful retirement dinner in his honor, and he was able to see his son attempt to follow in his footsteps, a formidable challenge.
As fate has it, the time has come for me to retire. The Young Israel made a very special retirement dinner for me, as well, this past Sunday. My sisters and brothers from throughout the globe attended, as did my children from throughout the country.
Much credit goes to the shul president, Rabbi Stuart Verstandig, and Rebecca Wittert for co-chairing the event. Yoseph Poplack and Debbie Weintraub arranged for a magnificent plaque placed inside the shul, testifying to my father’s contribution to YIKGH and beyond.
Speakers included my son Simcha, my brother Rav Aryeh, my sister Aviva Pinchuk, Rabbi Chaim Schwartz of the Vaad, and Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum. All spoke beautifully and with much meaning. Numerous political personalities were present, as well.
A friend of mine asked me if I could get my head through the door, as it must have swelled due to all the accolades. In truth, and I say this with no sense of false modesty, my head did not swell, as I felt like they were talking about someone else.
My brother made note of the fact that people refer to the change from the Schonfeld name as marking the “end of an era.” However, he remarked that it is not truly the end of an era. The impact that my father left on this great shul and the exceptional community of Kew Gardens Hills will endure forever.
Uri Zohar z”l, the famous Israeli celebrity turned inspirational baal t’shuvah, once said that Yiddishkeit is all about eternity. He noted that Charlie Chaplin was one of the greatest entertainers of his time. Yet what is his gift to the betterment of man? Who lives by any of his words today? Which of today’s generation even knows who he was?
My father’s sun has set, but his rays will shine forever. Thanks to my father, the community of Kew Gardens Hills remains a model for the Jewish world. Jews of all stripes are at home here: Ashkenazim, Sefardim, Bukharians, Modern Orthodox, yeshivish, chasidish, and non-Orthodox are at home here. Every Jew follows his or her own way of expressing their Judaism and no one is judgmental.
My wife and I will miss that, as we move on. We will miss the Young Israel and its members in a very big way. Yet, I do hope to continue writing for the Queens Jewish Link, as long as the paper will tolerate me. It gives me the opportunity to say what I really feel about the issues, while not abusing the pulpit.
So, as I watch the sun set, I see it rising in the horizon. With my father’s everlasting inspiration, the commitment of the baalei batim, and the leadership of the new Rabbi and Rebbetzin, it will remain a beacon for many years to come, b’ezras Hashem.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.