The following is the transcription of the second installment of Rebecca Rushfield Wittert’s in-person interview with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld about the origins of Kew Gardens Hills, conducted at his home in February 2018. It is continued from last week.
RW: When we stopped last time, we were talking about Sam Brach and amenities coming to the neighborhood. I was wondering, for my own interest: The Hebrew School and my father. How did you come to decide that the Hebrew School needed a principal? Were things growing?
FS: That’s a very good question. It came rather as a surprise. Other shuls were growing; people were starting to move into the neighborhood. So we decided that we needed a youth building to house the Talmud Torah and the youth groups. It was right in the middle of very important activities. And we had over 400 children in the Hebrew School at that time. The Hebrew School, not only did it do what it was supposed to, but it basically supported the entire community because it brought in some money. But that’s not why we did it. We did it because we wanted to have, shall I say, a basis onto which to build an Orthodox shul.
RW: Originally, you were the only teacher?
FS: At that time, we did not have the Youth Building. At that time we had the big building of the shul, and next to it, a house that was called the White House - a wooden old building. The whole area was part of an estate called the Campbell [Estate]. And because of the enthusiasm and the drive that our members had – there weren’t too many of them then – especially the Saperstein family, the Lymans, Blatt, a group of people. Believe it or not, in the big building and the small building, we were able to house over 400 children.
RW: I think my father came in 1955. How did you find him?
FS: That’s another good question. Remember, it was the height of the activity of Young Israel nationally. Every few weeks, another Young Israel sprouted up in different parts of the country. And Queens was the natural site on which to build. As I told you the other day – which was a long time ago – it started with eleven families. I began to realize that we have an obligation to the younger people in the community – who today are great-grandparents (those who survive). And I needed somebody to run the Hebrew School. The Hebrew School in those days, the Talmud Torahs – whatever you call them – was a movement not to be read as a movement. Therefore, we decided, let’s find somebody who can ease the burden for me and can really be important in the continued growth of the shul.
RW: So, did you go to the National Council?
FS: Yes. I called my friend Rabbi Sturm, and he said, “I have a young man by the name of George Rushfield, whom I know from my days in Yeshiva Chaim Berlin, who himself came from a home that was so-so in terms of Yiddishkeit. His mother is a very devoted Jewish mother. And his father was a shul-going Jew.”
Incidentally, and maybe not quite so incidentally, the American Jewish community went through a crisis. At that time, the strong movement among traditional Jews was the Conservative movement. Probably the strongest in the country [was the] Reform and Liberal movement. You know, people joined Reform temples. I always say when the newspapers tell you that the Reform movement is the largest movement of Jews in America, it’s a half-truth. Because to be a member means to be involved and do what the organization expects of you. Today, you ask somebody, “Well how come you don’t keep Shabbos?” “Well, it’s difficult, but I’m religious because I go Shabbos to a Conservative temple.” And so forth and so on. And today, even more so. When the newspapers speak about statistics, they tell you the Reform movement is the largest Jewish religious movement in the country. It is absolutely nonsense.
RW: Back in the ’50s and ’60s, were there a lot of Conservative “shuls”?
FS: Yeah. At that time, Queens had, and every borough had, three or four Conservative temples.
RW: Like the Main Street Jewish Center.
FS: Yeah. The Main Street Jewish Center was more traditional because its rabbi, Rabbi Kirshblum, was more traditional. But it allowed itself the freedom to practice Judaism the way they saw fit. The Reform movement, on the other hand, was Jews who had an interest in Jewish people but had no interest in Judaism.
RW: Did the Jewish Center on Main Street have a Hebrew School?
FS: Oh, yeah. I think about 1,200.
RW: So they were competition for the Young Israel Hebrew School.
FS: Well, I wouldn’t say competition. They were in contradiction to. The Conservative movement up to this very day depends upon the observance or lack of observance of its rabbi. Now we had at that time in Kew Gardens Hills a very interesting situation. Rabbi Kirshblum, alav ha’shalom, came from a very traditional home. Very. And on a personal level, I would say he was really what we would call today “observant.” But he made his own rules, his own regulations. The Conservative movement said, “Look. As long as you belong to a temple and you attend services and you observe basic laws such as kashrus.
FS: That sort of thing. Taharas HaMishpachah was not on this agenda. Now, at that time, the leader of the Conservative movement was Rabbi Gordis. A professor at JTS. The JTS, Jewish Theological Seminary, it shouldn’t surprise you, was rooted in Orthodoxy. Jewish Cemetery. Cemetery!
RW: [Laughs] That was a Freudian slip. The Theological Seminary.
FS: Rabbi Kirshblum himself was Orthodox. He came from such a family. When we started the mikvah, Rabbi Kirshblum was very, very helpful. On a personal level, his wife, Selma, was observant. And he helped build the mikvah by assisting in fundraising because he believed in it. Others would say, “Ah, mikvah, “shmikveh.” Why do you need it?” He kept a strictly kosher home. I would have to say that he was kind of Orthodox personally.
RW: So, an Orthodox person who took a job in a Conservative “shul” because it was a good paying job? Rather than believing in the philosophy.
FS: That’s another good question. Many of the Conservative rabbis in those years were Orthodox people who went to the yeshivos: Chaim Berlin, Torah Vodaath. I would say, Yeshiva University. Every rabbi did what he wanted to do. Officially, they were traditional. The faculty that taught there was traditional.
So Rabbi Kirshblum was very much involved in building the mikvah. And when people asked him how come, he said, “I need a mikvah.” And that created a lot of, I wouldn’t say machlokes – difference of opinion in the community. Right in the midst of the growth of the entire Kew Gardens Hills community. He helped fundraising and we had a committee for the building of the mikvah, the chairman of which was Leon Blatt. And then there was Hertzberg.
At that time, the neighborhood had seven kosher butchers. A lot of meat. When you came home from shul on Shabbos, you’d pass a butcher store. It’s closed on Shabbos but the back door was open. The owners were there working or they were receiving deliveries of meat.
RW: Getting back to the Main Street Jewish Center versus the Young Israel. The families who lived in the neighborhood who weren’t particularly observant – some of them would send children to the Young Israel for Hebrew School. Others would send to the Jewish Center. Why? How would they make their choice?
FS: You have a way of asking good questions. There’s more chochmah in your question than in the answer I can give you. The Jewish community in those days, I would have to say was 20, 30 percent traditional. The rest was nothing. The people who moved in who were raised in Brooklyn, the Bronx. They wanted a child to be growing up Jewish. You have to have a bar mitzvah, buy him t’filin he would use once in a while. They had strong Jewish feeling. I’m gonna tell you there were some funny things. I get a call from a lady who’s very upset. Tonight is my mother-in-law’s yahrzeit, she says. Her husband is out of town. He asked me to put on a light, a yahrzeit candle. I put it on. It went out. I tried it three, four times. I’m getting to be worried, because my mother-in-law and I didn’t get along too well. I said, “Wait a minute. You tried a few times and the light goes out.” “Yes.” “So how did it happen?” “Well, whenever I closed the door, it fell off.” She put the yahrzeit candle on top of the refrigerator. So when she went to the refrigerator to get something to eat, the glass fell down and the light went out. She tried a few times. “I know my mother-in-law’s after me.” I said to her, “Why does it go out? Is it a candle that is faulty? Or the wick?” “Oh, no, no, no.” “So where did you put it?” “On top of the refrigerator.” Now, the old-fashioned refrigerators had a curved shape. When anyone got up to take a drink, a glass of water, the glass would shake and it fell off. I said, “Wait a minute. Why don’t you try putting it in a different location?” That’s what she did. But she was scared beyond belief. “A message from my mother-in-law.”
RW: That’s amusing. I guess that shows the level of superstition people have.
FS: Yes, maybe. I wouldn’t call it superstition. But they got messages. In their own mind.
RW: But I remember my father saying there was a family whose mother was Jewish, but whose father wasn’t. Why would a family who obviously wasn’t strongly Jewish because the mother intermarried, come to the Young Israel rather than the Jewish Center?
FS: Because she grew up probably on the Lower East Side or Brownsville. Jewish life in those neighborhoods was very strong. Jewishly, not religiously. You were proud to be Jewish. You fought for Jewish causes. The extent to which you did not observe mitzvos, to that extent you were Reform.
RW: Right. So there were a lot of children in the Hebrew School whose families were not observant at all, but had this sort of, in their minds, Judaism.
FS: I’m coming to this. At one time we had 12 teachers in our Hebrew School. I hired teachers; people I knew. But we couldn’t exist like this. So I went to the National Council to ask for help. Rabbi Frank [Ephraim] Sturm said I have a young man. I think he’s just what you need. His name is George Rushfield.
RW: So that’s how you got my father.
FS: I met him at the National Council building. It was a time when Young Israel nationally was strong. Well, time marches on. What happened was that some of the Young Israel people joined the Conservative temple. It was just what they needed. And some, nothing. The kid was “bar mitzvahed.” It was the end.
RW: Did you have to be a member of the shul to send your children to Hebrew School?
FS: No. What we did was we had two scales of pay. How much do you think we charged?
RW: Probably back then, very little. I don’t know…
FS: Sixty dollars a year. If you were a member, 50. And we managed somehow.
The Hebrew School movement was very strong. You had the Talmud Torah Council of Queens. That was strong. Every shul had a Talmud Torah. That’s gone. The center did not hold. So either you were a member of the Reform, Conservative, or you weren’t a member at all. I remember, for example, the Yom Kippur after the new building that we put up in ’56. We had Yizkor services; people standing around the block to get in to say Yizkor. Irving Kahn took over the leadership, like a policeman. People came for Yizkor, stayed for an hour. Then went back. Those Jews are gone.
RW: That’s true.
FS: Either they come to shul and they daven and learn, or they’re intermarried and out. An interesting incident. One summer – we had a bungalow in the country – we came to New York and my wife, aleha ha’shalom, and I decided to go out for supper. There was [only] one kosher restaurant. We’ll talk about it next time, the kashrus situation. There was one next to a treifah restaurant. So my wife and I go out on Main Street. We see somebody with a beard go into the restaurant. So I say, “Oh. This must be it.” I think it was called “Esther’s Place.” We come and sit down at a table. At another table, the Jewish Center’s Board is meeting. We sat down at a table. The waitress comes over. Can I take your order? Do you want milk in your coffee? Milk? This is a kosher restaurant. So the Board of Directors of the Jewish Center were meeting at that restaurant. I saw a man with a beard go in - that was not a religious beard. When I look around, I nearly fainted. It’s a treifah restaurant. The kosher restaurant was right next door. So you had a meeting of the Board of Directors of the Jewish Center meeting in a non-kosher restaurant. It was outside, so you don’t keep kashrus. At home they probably did.
Now, the interesting part of this whole period was that the Jewish Center on Main Street was actually formed by traditional Jews. Altogether, the Conservative movement was much more traditional than it is today.
FS: Rabbi Kirshblum fought for a lot of good things in his temple. Mixed seating he accepted. He was a graduate of JIR. [Jewish Institute of Religion of Hebrew Union College.] He became a Conservative rabbi. He did what he wanted. He did not care about mixed seating. Or of parking the car on Shabbos. But a lot of good Jewish feeling among the people.
RW: The Vaad Harabonim of Queens didn’t form until years later?
FS: The Vaad Harabonim of Queens formed about that time.
RW: Was he part of it, or not?
FS: No. No, no, no. It was strictly Orthodox. Many of those shuls don’t exist anymore. Take the Conservative movement. It was in the process of, what shall I say, rebirth. The big Conservative movement was in Queens. Forest Hills Jewish Center. Main Street. Rego Park. Many of them said G-d disappeared. The only way to keep Judaism alive is the Conservative movement. Keep some mitzvah; others you don’t. So Gordis wrote a book for Conservative Jews in which he said that the only way to keep Judaism alive was the Conservative movement. This is not a boom that tells you about the life of Conservative Judaism, but the death of Judaism. Because he said as follows: You have to keep Shabbos. That’s a story in itself how to keep it. You have to keep kashrus. What kind of kashrus? But the one mitzvah he did not mention at all was Taharas HaMishpachah. A community without a mikvah is not a community. That part he didn’t mention. I read the book and said he’s making a big mistake. The demise of Conservative Judaism – we’re seeing it now – is due to the fact that each temple had its own Shulchan Aruch. Some Conservative movement temples offered mixed seating. Others not. It was a free-for-all. The Jewish Center at that time had 1,500 members. Today…
RW: Fifty? Maybe.
FS: Maybe. There’s no future in America. Especially in the larger cities.
RW: Personally, you and Rabbi Kirshblum were friends?
FS: At that point, Rabbi Kirshblum and I became quote unquote friends. He did have a very strong Jewish neshamah. He came from a frum home. His brother Max [Mordecai] Kirshblum was head of Mizrachi. His wife was a very observant woman. And the mishpachah. Then they started the problem of women’s aliyos. He fought against it, like a tiger. He had a lot of problems. His Center is down to what? From what it used to be.
Anyway, at that time, I met Rabbi Rushfield at the office of the National Council. We talked about things. He gave me his view on Jewish education and I found we really agreed with each other on many things. So I offered him the position. Officially, Assistant Principal, and I remained Principal. But actually, he was it. And a lot of people today – I don’t know the numbers – who are observant plus, came from our Talmud Torah. We had many members in shul. Take, for example, the Grossmans. Dr. Murray Grossman. Shabbos afternoon, he used to go and play golf. And Rozy is the one who pushed. The rest you know. There are many more like this – who became frum. Now there’s a family who had a little boy who went to our Hebrew School, who was about 12 years of age. One Shabbos I go out in the street and they passed me by in a car. And I see this little boy in the car on the floor. So, the next day, I said, “What happened?” “Well, we had to go to another shul in Brooklyn. My cousin’s bar mitzvah. And I didn’t want to go. It was Shabbos.” So he used to sit on the floor so people shouldn’t see.
George had a lot of influence on a lot of people because he knew and understood what American Jews were like in those days. We had a man who was a kohen. He did not duchan. I said to him, “Why don’t you duchan?” “How can I duchan? I’m not a shomer Shabbos. To me it’s wrong.” I said, “You’re wrong. Do one aveirah. Don’t do two aveiros.” Then he started coming to shul on Yom Tov to duchan.
I’m going to tell a story. There was a man who had a big department store. It was open on Shabbos. And he had a son who worked with him. The son came home one day and he said, “I have news for you: I got engaged.” “Engaged to whom?” “This girl. She’s not Jewish. She’ll become Jewish. It’s okay.” The parents are very upset. Anyway, he got married to her. She converted. The first Shabbos after the conversion and they’re married, the son doesn’t go to the store. The father said, “Why weren’t you here yesterday? It was a busy day. I needed you in the store.” “It’s Shabbos. I can’t.” “You’ve been going all your life. I used to go Shabbos to the Hashkamah minyan, the store, and then back.” He said, “No more. My wife wouldn’t let me.” So the father says to him, “I told you to marry a nice Jewish girl. You wouldn’t have this problem.” It’s no joke.
So George’s influence, I think, was strong because he came from his background.
RW: There were Holocaust survivors in the shul at the beginning. I think of Jack Nayberg, who after the War just gave up observance; who when their kids started to go to Hebrew School, when they had children, started coming back. Were there many?
FS: Quite a few. Jack Nayberg. Outstanding family.
George had the ability to look into the hearts and the minds of those kids. Remember, those kids were not yeshivah kids. On the other hand, they were not goyim. We had brothers. They were typical American kids whose mother came to me. He doesn’t want to go to Hebrew School. He doesn’t want to go to shul. She gave up on him. One day he passes by our shul. I’m trying not to say anything to him. He wore a white gown. He joined the Hari Krishna.
What can you do? His mother was very, very upset. A few years later, he comes back and he comes here for Shabbos. And I see a young man in a black suit looking like a yeshivah kid. It was him. He used to go to the airport to sing Hari Krishna. What happened was, he went to Hebrew School and he became a Hari Krishna and we lost him. But Lubavitch got a hold of him. And he became really frum. He moved to Monsey. I haven’t seen him in a long time. Has a large Jewish family. Yeshivah kids.
In other words, some of these young people, their parents if you would ask them, “Are you Jewish?” “Of course I’m Jewish. I’m proud to be Jewish.” “Then why don’t you keep Shabbos?” “Oh, you know. It’s not that easy.” And after a while, this didn’t last. It couldn’t last. The center gave way. The center either became intermarried or it became frum. Through our Hebrew School into Lubavitch.
Rabbi Kirshblum and I became sort of friendly. It was the weekly entertainment every Shabbos. He would get up at the pulpit and speak about Conservative Judaism. Because frum Jews started moving in, came to the Center, and left to join the Young Israel. It was very upsetting to him. When the Young Israel first started, at the beginning we used to daven in the Center downstairs - our own minyan. And Rabbi Kirshblum didn’t like it and he threw us out. This is how the Young Israel became stronger and stronger. As I said before, the center gave way. Frum yeshivah kids or nothing. But your father and your mother about whom I could talk for a long, long time, tried to stem the tide. This nishtahin nishtaher. Neither here nor there. And they became very, very popular. And they became involved in the lives of the children. I’m sure you know the Basner twins. They remained Jewish and live in Israel. They have beards, yeshivish because of our Young Israel.
What also helped us was that people moved in from the Lower East Side - like the Zimilovers and others who came from frum homes. They wanted to go to the Yeshiva of Central Queens. But Rabbi Charney wouldn’t take them because he had this idea of Ivrit b’Ivrit. It wasn’t the time for it.
So we had a lot of members who would sort of zig-zag between the two. They were members in the Center and members in the Young Israel. And we had sort of a competition. One says, “Did you hear what Rabbi Kirshblum said today?” Then says the other, “Did you hear what Rabbi Schonfeld answered him?” For a couple of years. Back and forth. Back and forth. There were a lot of people who belonged to both. Katzes, Ashenberg. It was an interesting time.
The third and final installment of this interview will be published next week.