It wasn’t until I was in my late 20s that it dawned on me that most rabbis don’t start their sermons like this.
As a kid I took it for granted – and as normal, usual – that Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, zt”l, would start his sermon by saying “I was in Israel and decided to visit the Prime Minister” or “The Gerrer Rebbe called me this week.” It was also common for him to reference a continual stream of Members of Congress who reached out, Reps. Gary Ackerman, Nita Lowey, and then still a congressman, Chuck Schumer. Round out the state legislators and city councilors who asked his advice and I don’t think a week went by without some politician making it into the sermon. This was all on top of his constant stories and lessons of his time with his teacher, “the Rav.”
“The rabbi,” as we always called him, passed away last Sunday, and is rightfully being remembered for his storied life and contributions – on a grand and granular scale – to the Jewish people. His was a unique paradigm of Jewish community leadership.
He was a prized student of the Rav, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik but equally as close to the Chasidic court of Ger, from where he hailed. He traveled between the interdenominational worlds of the Synagogue Council of America as easily as he did the RCA and the Queens Vaad, of which he was a founder. Back in 1984, he gave what may have been the first-ever invocation by an Orthodox rabbi at a Republican National Convention.
But he was also just a rabbi trying to serve a community. That meant making sure there was a kosher butcher just as much as a day school. He could help newlyweds find an apartment, and he’d likely be the first call – or visitor – to a sick congregant. That didn’t matter if he was out of the country, even back in the days when “long distance” rates were exorbitant.
In doing so, he built not just a synagogue but a community from almost nothing to three initials recognized the world over. His shul hosted most every new minyan in town as they started. Some were for new immigrants, or teenagers and young adults frustrated with the standard service. Those with their own space who still couldn’t muster ten for a minyan, need not worry. Rabbi Schonfeld would send over some people to make sure they had one. Invariably, these became shtiebels that would soon dominate the neighborhood, drawing congregants away from his own.
It didn’t matter. If he thought it built up the community, then it got his full support.
His community building wasn’t relegated to the house of worship. Nor was it confined to Kew Gardens Hills, or even Queens. He was ever present on the national and international stage, at a time when it wasn’t so common for rabbis of any denomination to necessarily be so bold. Here he was speaking up for Jewish values, and there speaking out to defend Jews in danger. One day, pressing the case to free Soviet Jewry, and the next advocating for a secure Israel. He was a member of, and often a leader in, Jewish organizations whose work impacted communities worldwide: the President’s Conference, IJCIC, and more.
Yet no matter wherever his travels took him during a given week, he was always tethered to shul, and committed to his congregants, or the children of congregants.
I got a front row seat to that.
As a young professional, still relatively new to Jewish communal work, I was working at the OU’s advocacy arm, when they added the “Catholic Jewish dialogue” portfolio to my work. I was already pretty at ease with governors, attorneys general, and comptrollers; with mayors and the citywide electeds, diplomats, Israeli cabinet ministers, Members of Congress, and state legislators. On this new interfaith beat, I quickly got used to working with several bishops and the occasional cardinal. But in this joint OU & Rabbinical Council of America effort with the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, the OU provided the staff support (that was me) but the chairmanship, and leadership, of the Jewish side of the dialogue came from the RCA. And that was Rabbi Schonfeld.
The rabbi. My rabbi, from when I was a kid. The one who built Kew Gardens Hills, that living example of pastoral care, the patron saint of dozens of other synagogues, an international spokesman for Jewish causes.
And now I was supposed to work with this legendary figure? It wasn’t easy at all to flip that switch in my mind, from child of congregants to professional colleague. That’s when Rabbi Dr. Tzvi Hersh Weinreb, then the Orthodox Union’s chief executive, whose professional background is as a psychologist, sensed the tension.
Rabbi Weinreb let the secret slip. “You know,” he told me, “Rabbi Schonfeld loves working with one of the ‘kids’ from the shul.”
And he did. He would tell people in the community about it, and when I visited, he’d ask me to speak about our work together. I know lot of other rabbis might have chafed at working with a congregant’s kid, especially one so much younger than them. But he relished it.
Because at his core, no matter what public policy issue we were working on, and no matter which leaders of government, of the Church, or of our own community were in the room, he was “the rabbi” to me and my parents. And while we will miss his voice and his leadership, it is this we will miss most of all.
Howie Beigelman is executive director of Ohio Jewish Communities, the statewide government advocacy, public affairs, & community relations voice of Ohio’s eight Jewish federations. Previously he was Director of State Affairs & Deputy Director of Public Policy at the OU.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.