A rabbinic role model for all
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, a colossal figure in the American rabbinate, dedicated his personal and professional life to the extended private domain.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, a colossal figure in the American rabbinate, who served the Jewish community for nearly seven decades, passed away last week, on the third night of Hanukkah.
The Shabbat of Hanukkah is special because it represents the meeting point between Shabbat’s “reshut hayachid,” our responsibility to inspire the private domain, and Hanukkah whose focus is the public domain upon which we project our Hanukkah lights. This fusion was exemplified by Rabbi Schonfeld.
Rabbi Schonfeld dedicated his personal and professional life to the extended private domain. In 1951, he became the rabbi of the newly-established synagogue Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in Queens, New York, where he cultivated a flourishing private domain for the Jewish people in the Orthodox community of Kew Gardens Hills. He helped build its institutions, even supporting a kosher butcher to ensure the self-sufficiency of the community. Rabbi Schonfeld understood that one size does not fit all, and so he welcomed all the area’s synagogues into the broader community. This community was, for Rabbi Schonfeld, a virtual family, and his leadership served as a model to all.
Even the innermost part of Rabbi Schonfeld’s private domain was a source of inspiration. Rabbi Schonfeld lost his first wife, Charlotte, in 1959, and married his second wife, lovingly known as Rebbetzin Ruth, in 1961. Together they seamlessly built a blended family, without dispute or division, and no one could tell you which children came from their respective previous marriages and which from their union.
In building his private domain, both his family and his community, Rabbi Schonfeld epitomized Tom Peters’s contention that leaders don’t create followers, of which Rabbi Schonfeld had so many, but rather, leaders create more leaders. To this day, there are few synagogues that have produced so many leaders in the Jewish world as the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. This is entirely due to Rabbi Schonfeld’s investment, from his sermons to his private conversations, exhibiting care for every congregant and every person with whom he interacted.
AT THE same time, Rabbi Schonfeld’s passing on Hanukkah also holds significance. For it is on Hanukkah that we harness the light of our private, communal domain and spread it to the world at large. And Rabbi Schonfeld characterized this ideal, taking responsibility for all the people of Israel engaging with the world at large.
He was an ardent supporter of the State of Israel, with many of his children building their homes in Israel. He was as great a Zionist as any of us who live in the land, never letting us forget that the Diaspora was but a temporary dwelling place for our people. I remember seeing as a young boy how Rabbi Schonfeld halted services on Yom Kippur 1973 in order to hold an emergency appeal, knowing the money would be needed to protect our beloved homeland at war. He championed the cause of Soviet Jewry, investing years in freeing our brethren behind the iron curtain. And despite his more conservative outlook, Rabbi Schonfeld co-chaired, at the request of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, the Synagogue Council of America’s Interreligious Affairs Committee, and in that role took part in the International Jewish Community for Interreligious Consultations (IJCIC). In these positions, and as president of the Rabbinical Council of America (1974-1976), Rabbi Schonfeld encouraged greater engagement with other streams of Judaism, and meaningful interaction with the Vatican and other Christian groups, partnering on combating social issues and promoting support for the State of Israel.
Rabbi Schonfeld, was a hassid of the Gerer dynasty and a student of Rabbi Soloveitchik, whose teachings were cited in nearly every sermon and shiur he taught. Having developed personal relationships with both, I can attest that Rabbi Soloveitchik saw in Rabbi Schonfeld one of his most trusted talmidim, particularly regarding issues facing world Jewry.
Personally, Rabbi Schonfeld had a tremendous impact on my own rabbinate, not only inspiring me to dedicate my professional life to the service of the Jewish community but coming to my aid when my career stood in jeopardy. In 1992, at the age of 28, I had recently taken a position in Boca Raton, Florida, and I was invited by the community, including the Reform and Conservative rabbis, to transform the level of kashrut on the 100-acre campus of the Federation and all its agencies from “kosher style” to the highest level of kashrut observance. Florida food purveyors who stood to lose financially from this change co-opted a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) beis din in Brooklyn to put me in cheirem (boycott). But when Rabbi Schonfeld got wind of this act of injustice to another person, let alone one of his congregants, he immediately traveled to Brooklyn to ensure that the cheirem was lifted and an apology issued.
This personal anecdote speaks succinctly to Rabbi Schonfeld’s unbelievable character, a leader who cared deeply for each individual and for the community at large, and who stood up for justice and Torah ideals, no matter the cost.
In the past few months, many new bright lights have begun looking down on us from the heavens: among others, Rabbi Nachum Rabinovich, Rabbi Norman Lamm, Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Rabbi Dovid Feinstein, Rabbi Gedalia Dov Schwartz – and now Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld. As is the nature of the circle of Jewish life, we are always charged to kindle new lights; to produce new leaders for the Jewish community who will sanctify the private domain of home and community and ensure the ongoing flourishing of Jewish values in the public sphere in this ever-changing world.
The writer is the President and Rosh HaYeshiva of Ohr Torah Stone.