The following is the transcription of an in-person interview conducted in March 2018 by Rebecca Rushfield Wittert with Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, discussing his path to building the neighborhood of Kew Gardens Hills many decades ago. It has been slightly edited for brevity. This is the third and final installment.
RW: The last time, you were talking a bit about kashrus in Queens and how there were many butchers that were not kosher. This time, you wanted to talk about the Vaad Harabonim of Queens and standardizing kashrus.
FS: Actually, I should say “non-kosher butchers” is not the right term. They were kosher butchers businesswise and they had kosher meat. The question is, how did they conduct the business? And many times, on the way home on Shabbos from shul, you’d pass by the kosher butcher stores. You could not honestly recommend any of them, because the question of kashrus is not simply how the meat was slaughtered, but what happens to the meat once it’s slaughtered. Secondly, most of these deliveries were made on Shabbos. The stores were closed, but the back was open. There was one of two butchers who was fairly religious. He left a key for the truck to get in. But others went to the store, opened it up, and watched the delivery. But, whatever it may be, they were not reliable.
The hashgachah for these stores at the time was given to – I wouldn’t say “given.” In charge of it was Rabbi I. Usher Kirshblum of the Jewish Center of Main Street.
RW: How many butchers were there at the time?
FS: There were seven.
RW: Wow! Along the whole stretch of Main Street?
FS: Yeah. It was much smaller than it is today. We had two bakeries. And the butcher stores, the stores were closed, but they were functioning.
RW: So Rabbi Kirshblum was sort of giving the hashgachah then.
FS: I. Usher Kirshblum was a Conservative rabbi. He was not, I have to tell you then, Conservative in his private life. He, and his wife particularly, kept a strictly kosher home according to their standards. And privately conducted their lives as Orthodox Jews. Because Rabbi Kirshblum came from an Orthodox family in Borough Park. But he decided to become a rabbi. He felt the best way to do this was to be a Conservative rabbi. But on his personal level, he was very observant. His children to this day. I see his daughter Marsha whose name is Waxman. A very frum girl. Went to YCQ. Became very friendly with my daughters. His son Alan became a chazan in a Conservative temple in Toronto. But the hashgachah was certainly not the kind that one wanted. So, in fact, there were no kosher butchers available on Main Street that would meet the standards of kashrus that we wanted.
RW: The one that Sam Brach worked for – the one that was near Melbourne Avenue. Herman’s?
FS: Herman’s. Herman was a very pious Jew. But he was not under the hashgachah of the Jewish Center. He was independent. I found that there was another store called Zilber. Near the bank. Personally, I would eat meat that came from those two stores. They did not need the hashgachah. The kashrus philosophy was you have to have all under one – otherwise there’s hefker. You can argue with this position. Accept it or reject it. But, by and large, there were no places to buy meat that the average Young Israel member could eat…with good conscience.
RW: Where did you get your meat from?
FS: I had two sources. One was the Aschenberg brothers: Philip and Victor, zichronam livrachah. They did not have a store on Main Street. They were on the Lower East Side. You made an order and they delivered it. So they were not involved. The only one who was involved with the Jewish Center hashgachah was Zilber, who was personally a frum Jew and there was no problem with him, so to speak.
The only one who was completely under halachic standards was Herman. Main Street Kosher Meat Market. Zilber had one problem. Meat, in order to be able to be eaten, has to be salted – what we call “made kosher.” Now, you can take a side of beef – a large portion – and submit it to kosherizing – which is not important for this interview to understand. One of the halachos is that you cannot salt meat, wash it, and kosherize it once it’s been chopped up, for halachic reasons, which is separate from the topic we are discussing. Zilber’s store had all the kosher standards to be a kosher store except that he would take meat that was chopped up and “kosherize” it. That cannot be done. Meat that has been pulverized, so to speak, has to be roasted over an open fire – not by the usual koshering process. But otherwise, it was completely, completely kosher. So this was the situation we come from.
In those years, Kew Gardens Hills was beginning to grow and become what it is today. It was just before the incoming of Russian Jews, the Bukharian community, who became very interested in having real kosher meat. Those years, the leading congregation in Kew Gardens Hills was, I have to say, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. The Young Israel of Queens Valley, which was an offshoot from the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills – that’s a separate topic, but briefly, we had members who lived at the end of Main Street near Union Turnpike. It was very far for these people to walk to the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills for shul.
But the community was growing, so we realized that there’s no Jewish organization, frum organization that took care of the business of the community such as kashrus. And Rabbi Morris Max, alav ha’shalom, of the Queens Jewish Center – that was being built at the time – as was our Young Israel. The Young Israel of Queens Valley did not exist. They were members of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. So they needed somebody to daven for them for Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur, etc. At that time, Alex Steinberg, alav ha’shalom, was a member in our shul – a president of our shul. And they started to daven, a minyan in the area of the Post Office. Further down. And Rabbi Peretz Steinberg was a member of the Kew Gardens Hills Young Israel. Since he was a competent baal t’filah, we organized for Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. And he took the role of leading rabbi in that little group of people. That’s how it all got started. Peretz Steinberg was at that time teaching Hebrew School in the Talmud Torah of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. At this time, more people moved in. And they became an independent shul.
So there were a few rabbis that got together and said, the community, baruch Hashem, is growing. We have no communal organization to be in charge of the k’hilah. So Rabbi Morris Max and I and one or two others decided to start a rabbinic organization to be of help to the people. We called ourselves the Vaad Harabonim of Queens. By this time, there were other shuls opening up: in Rego Park, Forest Hills.
RW: This is the 1950s or the 1960s?
FS: This was at the end of the fifties, beginning of the sixties. We had Young Israels opening up in Jamaica and on Union Turnpike. It was at that time growing very fast. There was a need for a rabbinic organization that could be trusted to be reputable, honest, and sincere. That’s how we got started. The first President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens was Rabbi Morris Max of the Queens Jewish Center. And I think I was the second president. Rabbi Emanuel Holzer of Astoria. That’s the story. And so, it became a very active community. A very active group of rabbanim.
RW: When the Vaad started, was the intention for it to give kashrus approval? Or did that develop later?
FS: That’s a very good question. We had a discussion. We decided to give kashrus approval because the need was there. We had to be sure that the kashrus was properly observed. But it was not its only function. As a matter of fact, it wasn’t intended to be a kashrus organization. We organized classes and Hebrew schools and lectures and social services. It became a very active organization to meet the religious needs of the local community.
RW: So almost all or all of the Orthodox rabbis in Queens ended up joining?
FS: Yes, except one or two chasidic rabbis. Like Rabbi Gelernter, zichrono livrachah. One or two others, who felt, well, they come from chasidic backgrounds. It’s not what they wanted. They were not critical of the organization. They just didn’t join. But they worked with us in many areas. The eruv.
RW: Ah, that’s a big thing.
FS: When it came to building the mikvah, Rabbi Peretz Steinberg was the motivating force, collecting funds and money to build the mikvah. In those days, there was a mikvah in Rabbi Gelernter’s shul. Shul. House. He used to be near the area where the cinema was on Parsons Boulevard. And then he subsequently moved out. So things developed and went in the right direction. I felt very strongly and so did Rabbi Max that kashrus needs to be properly observed. But it would not be the only area for activity.
RW: Who was the first rabbi or person or part of the community to push for the eruv?
FS: I would have to say it was Rabbi Peretz Steinberg. With the help of Rav Moshe Feinstein, we looked over the specifications, the plan. And he approved of it. I think we were the first group of rabbis who received approval from Rabbi Moshe Feinstein for an eruv. The Eruv Committee is another story.
RW: But I remember hearing that every single shul in the neighborhood agreed. Or you got every rabbi to sign on to the eruv.
FS: Right. One of the leading forces behind that was my son. Strangely enough, I was not happy. Ask me why. Because I had this concern. Making an eruv, people will carry outside of the eruv. If they go for a walk on Shabbos between Kew Gardens Hills and Hillcrest. The Young Israel of Hillcrest at that time was also established under the leadership of Rabbi [Sholem B.] Kowalsky, who was Rabbi Holzer’s chaver. We felt that people carrying in the street on Shabbos…I don’t want.
RW: Some people said that non-observant Jews or gentiles would see people carrying on Shabbos and think it was okay.
FS: No, no, no. Because there were many people, gentiles, who were opposed to the eruv. They had concerns. One of the conditions of the eruv, we needed the approval of the local Borough President. As the eruv grew in size, you had the help of two Borough Presidents of Queens County and especially Claire Shulman. Who was the one before?
RW: Was that Donald Manes?
FS: Right. We had no problems with him. Very cooperative. We needed their permission. Because people don’t understand what an eruv is. You take a string and put it around a house. There you can make an eruv. But you needed approval of the Borough President and the other building committee. The City. Since, theoretically, it belonged to the Borough President. I can talk about the eruv some other time.
FS: So there were the three areas of concern: kashrus, eruv, and mikvah. Which again, is a separate thing. And education in general. A great need to this very day. A major role of the rabbi is to be involved politically in the area. If we want to help the Jewish community with some needs that we have, we have to get the cooperation of the local political structure. So we got involved in all of this. But there’s the Kew Gardens Hills group.
Queens grew Jewishly. There were more people moving in and there were not many places where you can buy reliable kosher meat. You had the butchers that I mentioned. No trust. Zilber was a very frum Jew and he tried his very best to keep a really kosher store.
RW: After the Vaad was formed and it started to get involved with kashrus supervision, how did Rabbi Kirshblum feel about it?
FS: You’re asking all of the delicate questions. [RW laughs.] Rabbi Kirshblum felt personally insulted. Of course he couldn’t be a member of the Vaad. He wasn’t Orthodox. “I do my best to fight for kashrus. And then you undermine it.” It didn’t make any difference. That’s the way it worked out. But the mashgiach in charge of both stores was Rabbi Bagley, a very fine talmid chacham. A wonderful Jew. Mishpachah to Boruch Ber of Kaminetz. But that was his job to be mashgiach for the store. He didn’t give hashgachah but he had the power to enforce it. So it was very difficult to accept that hashgachah, because the halachic authority wasn’t there. Rabbi Kirshblum was very much opposed to the creation of this Vaad. He couldn’t join us because he wasn’t Orthodox. His synagogue was Conservative. So we had an interesting tug of war going on for a while.
So we got started actually because of kashrus. We had standards for kosher butchers. We had the mashgichim. They were reliable and trustworthy. Other shuls would join.
RW: Can I ask another delicate question about kashrus? Sam Brach for a long time wasn’t under the Vaad. Do you want to even touch on that one?
FS: It’s a very good question. Sam Brach had a history. He and his wife. They were survivors of Auschwitz. Very sensitive to that history. Herman opened his butcher store across the street from the cemetery. He was the only one you could trust. At that time, I took a step, even though it may sound a little bit conceited. A rabbi owes the community to enforce halachah. Herman’s butcher store was the only one at that time that we could tell people you can buy. It didn’t have a hashgachah, but in the long run we decided to include him in the list of butchers. He was a very fine man. He worked very hard. Now, we didn’t charge any money. Most organizations do.
FS: I felt, to this very day, a rabbi owes the community to have a proper Torah education. The community can make it possible for Jews to live Jewishly. To facilitate all the activities that could be used by frum Orthodox Jews. I said “frum.” Nobody has as yet defined what “frum” means. But frum is frum. And I said to Mr. Herman: the only condition that we make with you – we’re not going to charge you money for it. We’re not making any other condition. We want you to have people working for you in the store who are reliable. Sometimes they use goyim to cut up meat. But not that often. We want you, but there is one thing you have to promise: that the people working for you should be the right people, that you cannot hire or fire people.
One of the people who worked for him was Sam Brach. I could write a book about Sam Brach. He was very often misunderstood. His desire for Jewish survival, Jewish self-pride was very strong. He did not want Jews to be able to do what they wanted. So Sam Brach was one of the people who bought the store from Mr. Herman, who left the butcher business and went into the clothing business. He made blouses. He became a big community leader: on Main Street, the Bais Yaakov on Main Street.
RW: Shevach, which has the Herman Building.
FS: A very wonderful man. To the very, very end. And so was Sam Brach. When Mr. Herman sold the store, he sold it to Sam Brach. Sam Brach came from Europe. A concentration camp. An old story, which you can imagine. I said one thing to Sam Brach: You cannot hire or fire anybody without our approval. The Kashrus Committee of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. He was, by the way, very ambitious. And he saw the future in different ways than we did. That’s how the first kosher butcher store had the hashgachah of the Vaad HaKashrus of [the Young Israel of] Kew Gardens Hills: the butcher store of Herman, which was sold to Sam Brach. The chairman of that committee was Leon Blatt. And Larry Hertzberg. It developed to a very good business. Sam Brach said the store is becoming too small for me. I’m going to move. Whatever Sam Brach did, he first checked with us.
I have to tell this story about Sam Brach. Many, many years later, he was already located on Main Street, where it is today. I didn’t think he would succeed. He succeeded. I get a call Erev Shabbos from Miriam, his wife. “Can you come? The police are going to arrest Sam.” Huh? The police representative was there. The Sanitation Department. You cannot run a butcher store of that size and accept deliveries from the market unless if there is refuse on the floor, in the courtyard. It had to be swept up. It had to be cleaned. The man from the department for some reason did not get along with Sam Brach. So they came to the store. Sanitation. You did not sweep up noxious material, enough. That wasn’t true. They were forever looking for ways to get at him. Again, there are so many sub-stories here. They gave him a ticket, a fine. He refused to accept it. A ticket has to be written and handed to the owner of the store. He has to identify himself. Sam Brach refused. “They’re doing this to me because I’m Jewish.” He always had this comment: because I’m Jewish. “They’re not going to do it to me. I went through Auschwitz. I can go through this, too.” They were arguing and arguing. And the Captain of the police came down. A very nice man. He said, “Mr. Brach, for you the Sabbath is coming. Just sign your name on the ticket. That’s all they want. They’re not going to do anything.” “Look at my arm. I went through Auschwitz. The Nazis couldn’t do it. You’re not going to do it.” And I had to plead with him. “Sam. It’s Erev Shabbos. You don’t want to spend Shabbos in jail.” And his wife said, “Sam” – she’s the one who called me. Eventually, eventually he signed it. And he sued the Department of Sanitation. Accused them of anti-Semitism. Sam Brach’s story is the story of a Jew proud beyond words. Conscious of any anti-Semitism. Even if it didn’t exist. Never say never.
He had the store. I said, “Sam, you’re selling meat. Why a supermarket? Sam, it’s a lot of business. A lot of work. You have enough to do.” “No. The community needs it – a kosher supermarket.”
RW: Sam’s prices were lower than other places. That he felt his supermarket was a service to the community.
FS: Yes, of course. True. But he had other interests: real estate interests, parking lots. But he observed every single rule of kashrus. In this regard, he did not care about anybody else. Was it good for Jews? He became involved politically. Yet another one of these side stories. This is how it developed: The Queens Vaad Harabonim and other stores came in Forest Hills. Everybody wanted the hashgachah of the Vaad. The Vaad Harabonim did not get paid for this. Here for 25 years, our shul gave the hashgachah on the Brach’s meat without charging a single penny. You don’t charge to deliver a public shiur. You don’t charge for a mikvah. In this I have to tell you I succeeded. Not a single penny. Actually, the Vaad grew and had to employ people. That’s the story of Brach. But it’s only one story.
The Queens Vaad, we had a committee on education. We used to be active in every yeshivah. We had a Board of Education. The Chairman of the Board of Education was from Dov Revel, from YCQ.
The Queens Vaad became sort of a real k’hilah – which it is to this very day.
RW: Now I see the Vaad is doing many more programs again for community lectures and programming.
FS: The Vaad is very, very busy these days. I have not been involved in the Vaad for some time – for health reasons. The Vaad came into business really because of kashrus. We wanted the butcher stores kosher to everyone’s standards. Meat is a business.
RW: Well, now you almost can’t be a kosher store in Queens if you’re not under the Vaad. Maybe occasionally, the OU will have a restaurant, but the Vaad sort of sets the standard.
FS: That is correct. The scouts of kashrus was the Vaad. At the time, the community was growing. We didn’t want any butcher store, food store, to operate without hashgachah. Take a place like Aron’s. Or Seasons. Every single item in those stores is there under the approval of the Vaad.
The interview ended here and, unfortunately, was never finished in its entirety. May Rabbi Schonfeld’s memory be a blessing for our entire community.