Wednesday, December 07, 2022

Author's note: This was shared with my congregants at Congregation Keter Torah, and thereafter forwarded to The Jewish Link.

As kids growing up in Kew Gardens Hills, we knew that our rabbi, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, z”l, was an essential leader of the broader Orthodox community. While we may have not understood what this leadership role entailed, the first question we were asked when telling people where we lived was if we knew Rabbi Schonfeld. Luminaries such as Prime Minister Menachem Begin were frequent guests at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Our parents informed us that Rabbi Schonfeld was a prized student of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik and always had a seat at the court of the Gerer Rebbe.

Later in life I learned that these were just some of his achievements. While convincing me to accept being on the track toward becoming the president of the Rabbinical Council of America, he informed me that he had followed a similar path in the 1970s, serving a large congregation and being involved in local political and communal affairs while, together with Rebbetzin Schonfeld, raising a large family. He always believed that, with Hashem’s help and support from a strong family, individuals could surpass their apparent capabilities. I heard him reinforce this message when I would come home from Yeshiva University. In his multifaceted Pirkei Avot shiurim, Rabbi Schonfeld would describe how the lives of the Tannaim were filled with undertakings in the face of significant challenges. It never ended there, as he would share stories of contemporary figures, modern-day challenges and the need for steadfast commitment to the Torah values of such great personalities as Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch and Rabbi Soloveitchik.

Although, like many of my friends, I did not formally learn texts from him during my teenage years, we viewed him as a mentor who not only displayed genuine and deep devotion to Hashem but had great faith in us as we were trying to figure out ourselves and our next steps in life. Rabbi and Rebbetzin Schonfeld frequently hosted us, the teenage girls and boys of the community, at their home for Friday night learning and schmoozing in a healthy co-ed atmosphere. Although my parents usually davened at another local shul, they were full members of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, both out of respect for Rabbi Schonfeld and what he had built in his community, as well as his availability to our family. As I grew up, it became clearer to me that my father believed that I would gain immensely from a relationship with Rabbi Schonfeld and that he would play a role in helping me navigate some of the steps on my journey.

Rabbi Schonfeld could never accept that any kid from his community would be rejected by a Jewish school or that Orthodoxy would allow itself to be infiltrated by any sense of elitism. He made himself available to any kid in the community and he would adopt our cause and make it his own. I have tried to be a similar advocate for others, and I will be forever grateful to him for this embrace.

When I called Rabbi Schonfeld to tell him that I had received an offer from Congregation Keter Torah, the shul at which I currently serve, he lovingly told me that I was now the Roemer Rebbe, Roemer being the nickname of my shul. This was his clever and humorous way of wishing me mazel tov while also reminding me that what often seems like irony is Divine Providence at work and of the need to be patient with the process of development.

As Rav Noach Isaac Oelbaum mentioned in his hesped, Rabbi Schonfeld promoted the opening of more shuls and schools, literally down the block from his shul. He celebrated Bnei Akiva, Poalei Aguda and different branches of chassidus. While he was very open-minded, he did have his limits. As I learned from him many times, much later in life, he did not embrace the term Modern Orthodoxy, as he saw that as a description that could in fact weaken our community by seeming to establish an ideology of compromise. Rabbi Schonfeld had strong views and wanted me to hear them, especially when I became active in the RCA. Although I did not always call him back immediately, this did not stop him from finding me, as he did not hesitate to let my mother know that he was looking for me. He was vocal in his rejection of what he perceived as any reforms to halachic Judaism. Serving with him on the RCA membership committee was an honor, an education and a constant challenge in balancing our fidelity to halacha and respect for our fellow Jews. I believe that he negotiated this balance sensitively.

I am just one of thousands of people who grew up with the honor of having Rabbi Schonfeld as my rabbi. That fulfillment will continue even as our rabbi has moved to the next world. His care for our parents and children, for our siblings and for each of us as individuals was his greatest gift to us. The Abarbanel in Melachim 1 3:16 (haftarah of Miketz) shows that Shlomo Hamelech not only engaged in international affairs and communal complexity but offered open access to every strand of society. In fact, as seen earlier in this chapter (pasuk 9), this is all that Shlomo asked for from Hashem:

וְנָתַתָּ֨ לְעַבְדְּךָ֜ לֵ֚ב שֹׁמֵ֙עַ֙ לִשְׁפֹּ֣ט אֶֽת־עַמְּךָ֔ לְהָבִ֖ין בֵּֽין־ט֣וֹב לְרָ֑ע כִּ֣י מִ֚י יוּכַל֙ לִשְׁפֹּ֔ט אֶת־עַמְּךָ֥ הַכָּבֵ֖ד הַזֶּֽה, Give Your servant therefore an understanding heart to judge Your people, that I may discern between good and evil; for who is able to judge this Thy great people?

Shlomo received a lot more than he asked for, and Rabbi Schonfeld fulfilled much more than any particular role. For many, however, he was an individual whose understanding of the human condition helped them calibrate their decisions, including between right and wrong. He will forever inspire us.

May these words offer some comfort to his family and all those who loved and admired him.

Rabbi Shalom Baum is rabbi of Congregation Keter Torah in Teaneck.

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