Participants from all across the United States and Israel went online to pay their respects to Moreinu HaRav Mordechai Shraga Feivel ben Shmuel Shabsai HaLevi, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld zt”l, on the shloshim of his p’tirah, January 12.
Four prominent Jewish leaders and two grandsons joined in the tribute to a gadol who had served the Jewish community worldwide for seven decades. An incomparable talmid chacham, he could cite the words of his mentors with fluency. Whether quoting Rav Soloveitchik, the S’fas Emes, Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch, Rav Aharon Kotler, or the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schonfeld spoke with the utmost reverence and respect of these g’dolim who had so definitively shaped his worldview and actions. He lived a life of true balance, equally comfortable in the worlds of chasidim, misnagdim, Litvaks, and ardent Zionists. For decades, he served at the helm of organizations espousing diverse agendas, ranging from the Agudas HaRabbonim to the RCA to the Synagogue Council of America.
Grandson Simcha Schonfeld, son of the current mara d’asra of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, moderated the tribute on behalf of the family. He noted how Rabbi Schonfeld had been a powerhouse in the Young Israel movement, modeling rabbinic leadership to his younger colleagues, a true “rabbi’s rabbi.” In addition to building a vibrant shul, he grew an entire community with all of the amenities for an Orthodox lifestyle from additional shuls, schools, kosher food establishments, and mikvaos, all with unceasing devotion. Key to his ability to be a great leader was his ability to be an unswerving follower of his lofty mentors of whom Rav Soloveitchik topped the list.
The current president of the YIKGH, Stuart Verstandig, spoke of Rabbi Schonfeld’s concern and warmth as he headed the Kew Gardens Hills community and beyond for close to 70 years. He noted how, through the rabbi’s positions in national Jewish organizations, he was able to defend and protect Jews in danger across the world and advocate forcefully for Eretz Yisrael. Throughout his rabbinical career, thousands of individuals were impacted by his devotion and concern and are deeply grieved at his loss.
Rav Hershel Schachter, Rosh Kollel Elyon, Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary, Yeshiva University, considered it his honor to be included in the strong chaburah of Queens rabbis headed by Rabbi Schonfeld. He spoke of Rabbi Schonfeld’s respect for the younger generation of rabbis with whom he interacted. Rabbi Schonfeld was steadfast in teaching his colleagues to heed the call of Rav Soloveitchik in not compromising on issues of halachah when they were being challenged.
Rabbi Menachem Genack, CEO of OU Kosher of the Orthodox Union, spoke of Rabbi Schonfeld’s integrity and insistence upon the highest standards in dealing with matters of kashrus. Even before forming their meaningful relationship through the OU, Rabbi Genack, who grew up in Forest Hills, benefited from the ever-expanding infrastructure that Rabbi Schonfeld implemented in the Queens Orthodox community through the expansion of shuls, schools and other Jewish communal institutions.
Malcolm Hoenlein, executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, spoke of Rabbi Schonfeld as a “diplomat” on behalf of his people worldwide. Following his lifelong mantra of “kol Yisrael areivim,” Rabbi Schonfeld was fully engaged in the movement for freeing Soviet Jewry and participated in numerous rallies and demonstrations. Whether as an adviser to the OU, the RCA, Poalei Agudat Yisrael, or the Jewish Community Relations Council, he was patient and open but able to forcefully stand his ground in the face of dishonesty. Rabbi Schonfeld represented Orthodox Jewry proudly and authentically to all streams of Judaism, as well as to non-Jewish world leaders, including the Pope.
Rabbi Leonard Matanky is rabbi of Congregation KINS, West Rogers Park, Illinois, and a former president of the RCA. His relationship with Rabbi Schonfeld began only about 15 years ago, but he immediately viewed Rabbi Schonfeld as a distinctive and eloquent spokesman for the Jewish community. “Rabbi Schonfeld stood taller than most and became a mentor and bridge to the younger generation of rabbanim in the US. He gave everyone the benefit of their opinions, but when he saw errors or inconsistencies, he did not hesitate to speak out and offer his opinion and approach. His political involvement nationally did not preclude his outreach to the youth of his community prior to NCSY, which set the admirable model going forward,” he said. “In Parshas Sh’mos, Hashem commands Moshe and Aharon to the nation. What did Hashem tell them about the nation? He warned them that despite the many challenges with which the nation would confront them, they were to lead with nachas, calm, and patience. Rav Schonfeld confronted many challenges in his personal and professional rabbinical life. Yet he always maintained calm and patience. May his work continue in the hands and hearts of his chaveirim.”
The final tribute was delivered by grandson Rabbi Rick Schindelheim, rebbe at Fuchs Mizrachi School in Cleveland. In speaking on behalf of the Schonfeld family, he shared that there was a special kavod, almost akin to ro`yalty, inherent in being part of the larger Schonfeld clan. He spoke of the Schonfeld Shabbos table as being an extension of the pulpit, that his grandfather was as true to his beliefs while addressing his congregation as when sitting at a Shabbos meal. His grandfather saw no contradiction between the Torah giants who formed his beliefs and uncompromising principles. He never judged people, just ideas. He had a keen sense of humor, as when he made a MiSheBeirach at a Satmar minyan for Medinat Yisrael. He was a proud and devoted brother to Dr. Arnold Schonfeld, who passed away within the month of his own p’tirah, honoring him as an accomplished talmid chacham as well as a physician. Rabbi Schonfeld gave shiurim well into his 80s, and in his 90s was on the phone addressing issues for the RCA. He was a devoted husband to their cherished grandmother Ruth a”h, and a model of warmth and love to his children down to his great-great-grandchildren. May he be a meilitz yosher for us all in shamayim. Y’hi zichro baruch!”
By Pearl Markovitz