June 15, 2024
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Cherished Memories of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, z”l

As my parents were not observant, there had to be a decision to send me to Talmud Torah or, as we know it, Hebrew School. Since my father worked with Oscar Goldman, one of the founding members of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, it was suggested that I be placed in the Young Israel Talmud Torah. That was in 1960, 60 years ago. On Shabbatot, I would see the rabbi reign over the “big shul” after I attended junior congregation. He made a very handsome figure, with a powerful voice and a charming Austrian accent. At my bar mitzvah, he addressed me with a memorable dvar Torah including a quote from the Sfat Emet. From the hundreds of drashot that I heard from Rabbi Schonfeld over the years, there was no question that he was deeply influenced by the teachings of the Gerrer giants.

During my years growing up in the shul, if you didn’t come by 9:15 your seat would be taken. Rabbi Schonfeld was already considered to be the chief rabbi of the community. In the early 1960s, KGH did not even host one pizza shop.The local kosher butcher shop was owned by YIKGH members Sam and Miriam Brach and was located in a small store on Vleigh Place off Main Street. Rabbi Schonfeld himself gave the hashgacha to the store. Later on, even when pressured, Rabbi Schonfeld felt that he should remain the rav hamachshir. Brach’s Supermarket became the major kosher supermarket in town and the model to those that came afterward in many communities.

Rabbi Schonfeld instantly responded to world events and their impact upon the Jewish community. His drashot presented insightful Torah commentaries and always expressed a strong connection to and love for Eretz Yisrael. On the weekend of the tragic assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, Rabbi Schonfeld eulogized him movingly and declared the community’s participation in a Day of Mourning. I was deeply honored to lead the congregation in the Pledge of Allegiance on that memorable day.

I met my wife Rachel during my involvement at NCSY. Rachel, who was attending Stern College, would constantly tell me what an amazing instructor of halacha the rabbi was. Over the many years that followed I would meet Rabbi Schonfeld at major Jewish events everywhere where he served as a representative of his shul, community and of all of klal Yisrael. I do not believe that he ever turned away any organization or cause supporting the growth and enhancement of the State of Israel. Throughout, it was obvious to all that Rav Schonfeld lived in the worlds of Rav Soloveitchik, Mizrachi and Gerrer chassidus simultaneously.

In the fall of 1996, following our family’s return to the New York area from Los Angeles, I was invited to serve as a baal tefillah for the Yomim Noraim at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, a great honor for me. In February of 1997, former long-time High Holiday baal tefillah Oscar Goldman passed away. At the enormous levaya in the shul, I was asked to chant the Keil Malei. Shortly afterward, Rabbi Schonfeld invited me to assume the role of Oscar Goldman, which I did for 17 memorable years. Rabbi Schonfeld knew that I would continue Goldman’s legacy of cherished nigunim. When chanting U’Venucho Yomar, I would always see the rabbi’s emotional reaction to the melody.

During his many years as the mara d’atra of the YIKGH, Rabbi Schonfeld became the “unofficial” dean of the American rabbinate as he served as an exemplary role model to young semicha students who would go on to lead communities across the country. He reflected the philosophy of Modern Orthodoxy (even though he did not believe in labels) in its infancy, in its growth and even in where it is headed today. He always displayed a genuine and high regard for talmidei chachamim who would often grace our shul with their presence. He was able to weave their teachings into his own halachic standards. I believe that with his passing, a mold has been taken away and we will have a difficult time replacing it.

Yehi zichro baruch!


Paul S. Glasser is vice president of institutional advancement at Touro College and University System.

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