You know in your head that the day will come when a cherished older loved one will no longer be with you. But your heart breaks nevertheless. Rabbi Schonfeld’s p’tirah was not a tragedy. He had arichas yamim v’shanim. He had an amazing family. He had the z’chus to give so much to so many. He made a great impact on the Jewish world. No, it isn’t a tragedy, but it is so, so sad.
I entered Rabbi Schonfeld’s life, or he entered mine, in September 1950 when Aviva and I started first grade. Because of the very close friendship that we established back then, which, baruch Hashem, continues until the present, we sort of grew up in each other’s homes. That friendship and relationship would never have survived the first years had our fathers, both community rabbis, albeit of different streams, not had a mutual respect for one another.
Letters have been found written by my late father, Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum, to Rabbi Schonfeld attesting to the fact that, as the years progressed, the mutual respect evolved into friendship. The two men probably disagreed on most if not all things except moral and family values, but they and our respective families were there for each other always and in the most difficult of times.
One letter written by my father thanks Rabbi Schonfeld for coming to visit him in the hospital “several” times and for r’fuah sh’leimah wishes that were conveyed to him in the Young Israel Bulletin. There were other warm correspondences between the two on various topics.
When Rebbetzin Lottie Schonfeld passed, it was a shock. Not only was it a shock because of her young age, but because we of the next generation were so very young. How could she no longer be with us? My brother having spent a year in Israel came home on the last day of the shiv’ah. He went straight from the airport to the shiv’ah house. My mother came home from Main Street some months later all upset because Rabbi Schonfeld had his youngest, Debbie, hanging on to him because she wouldn’t let him leave her.
I remember when Rebbetzin Ruth Schonfeld entered the scene. We were much too young to fully comprehend what this amazing young woman took upon herself and accomplished. She always told me that my mother was the first person to welcome her into the community. This served to continue and strengthen the very special bond that our two families shared.
Rabbi Schonfeld wasn’t just my best friend’s father, he was an important part of my life for as long as I can remember. He was the main maspid at my father’s funeral. He was a father figure to both my brother Eli and me, guiding us through that very difficult time in our lives.
He was the mesader kiddushin at Larry’s and my wedding. He met with us more than once before the wedding to make sure that all was as it should be. The concern was not as the Rabbi but as a family member.
Whenever Larry and I would come to Kew Gardens Hills from Israel, the Schonfelds were our first visit upon our arrival and our last before departure. It was a given that we would be with them for “Shabbat dinner” whenever possible. He would love to shmooze with me about the old days and people from those times. It was almost as if we were the same age, because I was among the few people who went back to the very early days and remembered what he remembered. His face would light up with joy and he had a twinkle in his eyes when we reminisced. His memory was astounding. Not only did he remember every one’s name from his shul but also from my father’s. He loved to discuss Israeli politics with Larry and he was always totally up to date.
When I came to shul the first Rosh HaShanah after being married, it was raining. So I wore a safari type rain hat. I was in the first row in the downstairs minyan and the Rabbi looked at me and mouthed, “Is that your hat or Larry’s?” Not the most encouraging words to a newly hatted woman. By the above comment I knew that our relationship was solid and not changed by my new marital status. He was still going to treat me like one of the kids.
I was in the hospital in Petach Tikvah after a serious operation. This was in the days before cell phones, and there were no private phones in the rooms. I was called to the nurses’ station for a phone call. That wasn’t usually done either. But on the other end of the line was Rabbi Schonfeld, who wanted to see how I was doing before he left Israel. To this day, I still have no idea how he found me and was able to convince the nurse to get me to the phone. After returning home, my phone rang one morning at 9 a.m. He was calling to check on me. “But it’s 2 a.m. in New York,” I said, to which he replied “but not for you, so don’t worry.”
When it came time for my father’s shloshim, I was asked if I would speak. It was to take place in my father’s synagogue and I would have to speak from the bimah. Even though it was on a weekday, I wrestled with the decision back and forth. Finally, I was convinced by a friend that I had to do it for the kavod of my father. At the end of the evening, Rabbi Schonfeld approached me, shaking his head back and forth. Seeing him I said to myself, I guess he’s not happy with my decision. I was upset because his opinion meant so much to me. Much to my relief, it was quite the opposite. He told me how proud he was of me.
I have had the great privilege and am proud to be considered part of the Schonfeld clan. As the ten children sat shiv’ah, I and many others “stood” shiv’ah.
We all miss Rabbi Schonfeld terribly and haven’t quite totally internalized the enormity of the abyss that his passing has left.
Y’hi zichro baruch.
By Marsha Kirshblum Wachsman,