I’ve been back to visit my hometown of Kew Gardens Hills many times since we made aliyah over 22 years ago. Once my mother passed away, my anchor to the neighborhood was gone, but nonetheless, I continue to gravitate towards the community every time I travel to the US. But on each trip, the area feels increasingly less familiar. I used to walk down the street and see many familiar faces. Now I recognize fewer and fewer faces. While there are some stores on Main Street that have withstood the test of time, so many have come and gone. And of those that remain, many have been updated and renovated to the point that they barely resemble what they once were. And what on earth happened to the library? Once I actually walked right by my house, not recognizing that it was the home I grew up in. It took a moment to register, due to the fence that was built around the property. But with all the changes, big and small, there were some things I could always count on to remain stable. I could depend on the fact that if I walked up 70th Road past YCQ, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills would be standing prominently at the top of the road. And if I continued a bit further, I would reach the home of Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schonfeld. No matter how different the neighborhood began to feel, seeing the shul and the Schonfeld residence made me feel like I was back home. There was no need to go inside the shul (although sometimes I did), as the memories would immediately begin to surface. I could hear Rabbi Schonfeld’s clear voice speaking at the pulpit, giving over his thoughts about the Parshah or the situation in Israel. I could hear him loudly singing Mipi Keil at the outdoor hakafos on Simchas Torah.
Much has been said and undoubtedly will continue to be said about Rabbi Schonfeld as a great rabbi and leader. But although he was my family’s rabbi, I also recall the friendship that he and the Rebbetzin shared with my parents. Often, on Motzaei Shabbos, my parents would entertain and invite over couples from the neighborhood, the Schonfelds among them. I recall how much my parents enjoyed spending time with them as they had much in common. When my father was sick, Rabbi Schonfeld would come to visit my father at home and in the hospital. He offered support as a rabbi and as a friend. Similarly, the Rebbetzin would also come and offer her support to myself and my mother, always trying to encourage a positive spin on a difficult situation. Along with her cheer she brought gifts for my newborn baby. Rabbi Schonfeld came to my parents’ home the night my father passed away. This would not necessarily be considered extraordinary for a shul rabbi except that my father passed away on the same night as the Young Israel dinner. Of course, this would not deter Rabbi Schonfeld from being where he was needed. Years later when my mother was very sick in Israel, Rabbi Schonfeld, who happened to be in Israel at the time, came to spend time with her in the hospital as well. He spent quite a bit of time talking with her, knowing exactly what to say and how to say it. A few days before my mother passed away, the Rebbetzin called me to see how I was doing and to offer her support. They had an uncanny knack for being in the right place at the right time. It was not uncommon for them to spend an entire Sunday running from one affair to another with more energy than I had at half their age. The Young Israel was not a small congregation by any means, but the Rabbi and Rebbetzin were always there for everyone, in good times and bad.
There is one memory I have with Rabbi Schonfeld which to this day causes me to chuckle. When I was in high school, Rabbi Schonfeld called me up one day and asked me to participate in the shul forum. I don’t know if it still exists, but back then, every year on Shavuos afternoon there was a panel discussion in the shul on some chosen topic. Rabbi Schonfeld asked me to be part of a panel of children of American-born parents as well as children of Holocaust survivors. I would have to make a speech of some sort. My father was a rabbi who was very comfortable with public speaking. But this trait he did not pass on to me. Visions of myself opening my mouth with no voice coming out filled my mind. But how could I possibly say no to Rabbi Schonfeld? Despite my better judgement, I heard myself agree to his request. My father whipped up a speech for me and assured me that all I would need to do is read it. Not a barrel of fun, but not terribly difficult either. I knew how to read. But after I read the speech, members of the shul, who were so kind to attend and actively participate, began asking me questions about what I had said. I can’t even say I was tongue-tied. That would imply that I couldn’t get the words out. But in actuality I had no words. My mind drew a total blank and I stammered my way through the rest of the event. While it was a bit traumatic at the time, I now look back at it fondly as Rabbi Schonfeld’s way of getting the youth involved in shul activities.
Besides being our family rav and rebbetzin, Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schonfeld were the parents of my very good friend, Tammy. Through this relationship, I was able to observe the Schonfelds from a totally different vantage point. I have fond memories of sitting in the Schonfelds’ kitchen, all coordinated in pink, green, and white, chatting away with the Rebbetzin, feeling her warmth, authenticity, and hearing her wisdom. Tammy and I once traveled to Switzerland along with the daughter of another friend of Rabbi Schonfeld. We tried to keep our trip low-cost but found this to be very challenging, as everything was much more expensive than we had anticipated. Restaurants charged a fortune of money for a morsel of food and wouldn’t even serve water for free. We found ourselves eating as little as possible in order to keep within our budget. The Rabbi and Rebbetzin happened to be in Switzerland at the same time, as they came for the bris of their grandson. One night we decided to surprise them and show up at their hotel. I will never forget the look of surprise on their faces as we climbed around the side of the hotel in order to wave to them from the window as they ate their dinner. They then welcomed us into the hotel and offered us some food, an offer we couldn’t refuse. Tammy and I also got engaged the same night and got married a few weeks apart from each other. Having our families go through the engagement and wedding periods together made the experience all that more enjoyable.
It is truly the end of an era. Kew Gardens Hills will never be the same - not for me when I visit and not for anyone else either. It is my hope that those of us who were inspired by Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schonfeld will continue their legacies in a way that would make them proud.
Yehi zichro baruch.
Suzie (nee Schapiro) Steinberg grew up in Kew Gardens Hills. She works as a social worker and lives with her husband and children in Ramat Beit Shemesh.