Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, of blessed memory, reached the pinnacle of rabbinical success on so many levels. He was the model pulpit rabbi. He was a major Torah scholar and poseik. A snapshot of him can be found in an interview he did with Jewish Action in 2008. The following is an excerpt of his: “Basically, the changes came about with siyata diShmaya (help from Above). It’s the natural way of Torah to inspire people, to cause them to rethink what life is all about” “A rabbi’s job has also changed tremendously; (he is no longer) somebody who (just) answers occasional questions about Yaaleh V’Yavo, R’tzei, and Al HaNisim. Today, the rabbi has to be a qualified psychiatrist, psychologist, and above all, social worker –which is really what Moshe Rabbeinu was.”
Even though Rabbi Schonfeld was all of the above, I would like to concentrate on his political dimension, which was enormous in its own right.
The question that comes up frequently is how involved a rabbi should be in politics. If one uses Rabbi Schonfeld as a gauge, then the answer is simple – very heavily. Suffice it to say that the rabbis of old did not hesitate to wade into politics. It is only a modern-day phenomenon that many rabbis have shied away from politics. The great rabbis like Rav Aharon Kotler, of blessed memory, made sure to be involved in the political process. His involvement saved tens of thousands of lives during the Holocaust.
Another great rabbi with whom I was very close, Rav Ahron Soloveitchik, of blessed memory, was the first to speak out against the Oslo Accords. Most rabbis did not even voice an opinion. I was privileged to be able to travel to Israel with him and ten other rabbis, including Rabbi Zvulun Lieberman, of blessed memory, (Rabbi of Congregation Beth Torah of Brooklyn, whose son Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, was murdered in the Intifada of 2000) and Rabbi Max Schreier of the Avenue N Jewish Center in Brooklyn to visit Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in October of 1993, soon after the signing of the Oslo Accords, to present our case. The meeting produced many tangible results. Holy sites were saved and the surrender of Jewish lands was slowed down considerably.
For the most part, the rabbis of the Young Israel movement, including Rabbi Schulem Rubin, of blessed memory, of the Young Israel of Pelham Parkway, were tremendously involved in the political dynamics of the last half century. They were brave, courageous, and up front about the future of the Jewish people both in the United States and in Israel. The rabbis of today could learn incredibly valuable lessons from these powerhouses.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was at the top of the rabbis who were engaged and fearless. He was kind, generous, accessible, and above all else a leader with a capital “L.” Perhaps, it was his Holocaust experience that taught him that silence is complicity. I have had the good fortune of being close to many Holocaust survivors. They have been an unwavering source of support. They all have maintained that we cannot remain passive and silent. We must be proactive and direct.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was respected because of his hands-on approach. He invited me to speak on a number of occasions in his synagogue, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and he was always supportive and encouraging.
In 2003, when I invited Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (he was a Knesset Member at that time) to the Israel Day Concert in Central Park in memory of Carl Freyer z”l, Dr. Manfred R. and Anne Lehmann z”l, and Rose and Ruben Mattus, I was heavily criticized at the time. I remember speaking at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and a member stood up and criticized me for having Benjamin Netanyahu at the event. Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld helped me out. He rescued me. My feeling at the time was that, although PM Netanyahu had let us down over the Hebron Accords and the Wye Agreement, he had his heart in the right place, and that he still had a great future in Israeli politics. I have been proven right ever since. I will never forget that Rabbi Schonfeld was in my corner.
When Odeleya Jacobs, Dr. Paul Brody, and I brought Naftali Bennett to the United States right before he entered politics in 2011, the place he held his first press briefing and discussion was under the auspices of Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld and the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.
Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was a giant among men and the consummate rabbi’s rabbi. It was an honor and a privilege to have walked on this earth with such a towering figure. The family should be comforted among the mourners of Zion and Yerushalayim.
Joseph M. Frager is a physician and lifelong activist.