At my father’s l’vayah held in the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills on Sunday, 27 Kislev, December 13, I related that my father did not eulogize his father, my grandfather R’ Shabsie Schonfeld zt”l. My father felt that as a son, he was not adequate to the task of offering an assessment of his father’s life. If it was true of my father vis-à-vis his father, how much more so is that true of me vis-à-vis my father.
I will therefore not attempt to offer a eulogy or obituary of my father. Rather, I will record the theme that emerged from the extremely busy week of people writing and calling in their experiences with my father.
ArtScroll very recently published a book on the life of Rav Shlomo Gissinger zt”l, an incredible tzadik whom I happened to have known quite well from Lakewood, New Jersey. The book, authored by Avrohom Birnbaum, is titled At Any Hour, and documents the total dedication of Rabbi Gissinger, day and night, to caring for every individual who sought his help (or even those who did not).
Rabbi Birnbaum emailed me after my father’s passing to let me know how special my father was. I thanked him and then mentioned how inspiring the book on Rabbi Gissinger is. He told me that one rav told him, after reading the book, that he has “chalishas ha’daas” – he feels weakened by the book because he, as a rav, is nothing like Rabbi Gissinger.
Similarly, I feel so miniscule by the impact my father had and the void that he left with his passing. Email after email, letter after letter, phone call after phone call, we learned of the magnitude of my father’s reach to all sorts of people. Some were notables. Most were not.
I heard and read stories and stories of my father being present to lend support during a time of grief or joining in a time of joy. So many started their message with “If not for your father…” Grandparents today related how my father inspired them to Torah observance. Or how, when they were teenagers, my father’s shiur for teens on Friday night changed their lives. Or how, when they had legal problems, my father went to bat for them. His Stern College students had a complete change in their attitude towards Judaic Studies thanks to his course. Kids in camp looked forward to his letters (remember them?). Or the widows who received weekly Erev Shabbos calls for decades. The list is literally endless.
Rabbi Kenneth Brander is one of the many who credit my father with inspiring them to go on aliyah. Rabbi Brander told us and then wrote in The Jerusalem Post how, thanks to my father’s unrelenting support against a hostile press and rabbinic establishment fighting Rabbi Brander’s battle to have reliable kashrus standards in Boca Raton, Florida, years ago, much of kashrus in Boca today is in no small measure due to my father.
The single most outstanding quality my father possessed was the fact that he was at home with every facet of Jewry. He was a Gerer chasid and devotee of the S’fas Emes, while a true talmid of Rav Soloveitchik zt”l, yet an expert in the writings of Rav Shamshon Raphael Hirsch zt”l. He was equally comfortable in the Dati Leumi world as he was with the chasidic world. This is most evident in the generations of children and grandchildren he was proud of.
Calls that came into our home during shiv’ah included from Rav Shmuel Kamenetsky (Philadelphia Rosh HaYeshiva), Rav Reuven Feinstein, Rav Dovid Cohen, Rav Dovid Harris and Rav Akiva Grunblatt (of Yeshiva Chofetz Chaim), Rav Dovid Grossman of Migdal HaEmek, and the Gerrer Rebbe in Yerushalayim.
Of course, we heard from many rabbis around the globe, including a grateful Conservative rabbi and a bishop who cherished their relationships with my father.
These past number of months have been very difficult ones for the world and for Jewish leadership. We suffered the loss of such greats as the Novominsker Rebbe, Rabbi Dr. Norman Lamm, the Pittsburgher Rebbe of Ashdod, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Rav Gedalia Dov Schwartz of Chicago, and now my father.
My father managed one last chesed, even in death. I recall that when my father’s cousin, Rudy Tauber, was niftar a few years ago, the l’vayah was held in Shomrei Hadas Chapels in Brooklyn, and he was brought to JFK Airport for transport to Israel for burial. Due to the rush in scheduling, no one was able to accompany the aron to the cargo area of the airport. The family had to go straight to check-in with El Al. I was ready to go home from the chapel. My father, realizing that no one will be present when they “load” the casket at the airport, he insisted that we quickly run to JFK Cargo first. “You can’t allow Rudy to be shipped like a package in the post office!” Naturally, we did go to JFK Cargo and were able to say a final farewell to Rudy.
When my father was niftar, he was sent to Eretz Yisrael via United Airlines at Newark Airport. In the parking lot, where the hearse was waiting, we noticed another hearse right behind us. It turns out that the hearse was carrying Mrs. Ann Kuppermann, who had died around the same time. Mrs. Kuppermann was an extremely generous baalas tz’dakah, even dedicating the aron kodesh of our shul’s new beis midrash in my mother Ruth’s name. She left a daughter, Wendy Joy Kuppermann, who was not able to attend the funeral. At the airport, Mrs. Kuppermann was all alone aside from the driver. I was able to say a kapitel T’hilim on her behalf.
Thanks to my father, Mrs. Kuppermann was not sent off like a package in the post office.
Rashi (B’reishis 39:11) tells us that what kept Yosef from faltering during his most challenging times while alone in the house of Potifar was the “image of his father Yaakov,” which hovered above him. I am indeed not adequate to keep to the standards my father set, but I will forever have his image before me as my guide.
Y’hei zichro baruch.
Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld is the Rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, Vice President of the Coalition for Jewish Values, former President of the Vaad Harabonim of Queens, and the Rabbinic Consultant for the Queens Jewish Link.