| Family First Feature |

One Mother, One Family 

Against a backdrop of grief, Rebbetzin Ruth Schonfeld blended two families

As told to Rivka Streicher by Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld

They lost their spouses just a month apart, spouses who were buried just a few graves over from each other. Destinies thus intertwined, Mrs. Ruth Schindelheim and Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld joined forces and married. As the newly minted Rebbetzin Schonfeld, Ruth created a home for their orphaned children and helped her husband lead the thriving community of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Her stepson, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, recalls the warm and loving haven the Rebbetzin created and the marvelous woman she was


mother, Lottie Schonfeld, has been gone now over 63 years. For decades following her petirah, I would dream about her several times a week. Then, about 20 years ago, the dreams abruptly stopped. I don’t know why.

What I do know is that to this day every time I see an old tree, I think to myself, That tree was around when Mommy was alive…. When I see workers pouring cement to make a new sidewalk in my community of Kew Gardens Hills, New York, I sigh. Don’t remove the sidewalk that my mother walked on.

When Hank Aaron retired from baseball in 1976, and everyone was buzzing with it, all I could really think was it’s a shame that a ballplayer who was active during Mommy’s lifetime was now gone from the scene. Inane. My mother knew nothing about baseball, but to me it was a connecting link.

I was seven when my mother passed away. Today, I have grandchildren that age and much older. But the loss of my mother has always run deep. In the decades since her death, I’ve known loss and love; raised my own children together with my dear wife, Peri, seen them to the chuppah — one of them, twice — and am now in the thick of grandparenting.

Reflecting back, years — and many experiences — later, it’s my stepmother, Ruth Schonfeld, I think of. What she gave me, what she gave our family, against a backdrop of grief and brokenness. How she blended two families, how she was our mother, our Ima.

The Beginning

My biological mother, Lottie Schonfeld, was the daughter of Rav Yoel Jakobovits, rav in Lackenbach, Austria. Incredibly, the Jakobovits family managed to escape to London and avoid Hitler’s grip. My mother was one of seven, one of her brothers being Rabbi Immanuel Jakobovits, who served as chief rabbi of England.

My father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, and his brother managed to maneuver around Europe during the war years on their own, until they, too, found refuge in England. My father was sent to the rural town of Shefford — under the care of Dr. Solomon Schonfeld (no relation) who oversaw the Kindertransport — a safe haven for thousands of war-torn Jewish children.

In Shefford, my parents met, and ultimately married. They were a charming couple of almost fairy-tale lore. They moved to London and had two daughters there, my sisters Viva and Vicky. They then emigrated to the United States for my father to begin his career in education and the rabbinate. I, their only son, was born in Queens, New York in 1952, followed by my sister Debby in 1957.

Just two years after Debby’s birth, my mother was diagnosed with acute leukemia, and within three weeks tragically passed away, at the age of 37, on the bitterest of days, Tishah B’Av.

My father, flourishing rabbi of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, was totally crushed by the passing of his beloved wife.

There was the shock, the suddenness, the devastation of Mommy’s death, and there he was, left to somehow pick up the pieces and raise his four children. For a while he hired a housekeeper, a Holocaust survivor, Mrs, Zelda Lerner, whom we referred to as Auntie Lerner. It was an excruciating time for all of us; my father was in quite a depression.

In the same summer of 1959, a diamond salesman named Jack Schindelheim was on a Braniff Airlines flight to Dallas, Texas, finally en route home after being on the road for a while. Tragically, the flight crashed with Jack on board. At the age of 42, he left behind his grieving young wife, Ruth, and four children.

It happens that Jack Schindelheim and my mother, Lottie, aside from passing away about a month apart, are also buried very near each other in Beth Israel Cemetery in Woodbridge, New Jersey. Common destiny…?

Ruth Schindelheim, née Leifer, came from chassidic stock. Her father, Reb Shulem Leifer, emigrated from Romania to the United States in the late 1920s, eventually settling in Brighton Beach in Brooklyn, and becoming the Nadvorna Rebbe of Brighton Beach. His son, Reb Shlomo, is the Nadvorna Rebbe of Boro Park today.

Ruth was given the name “Ruchel” at birth, but was called Ruth by her first-grade public school teacher, and that’s how she was known all her life. She was offered a scholarship at Cornell University, but had to turn it down, as it was necessary for her to be a contributing breadwinner for her family. She became proficient in the diamond line, and it was through the diamond business that Ruth met the dashing Jack Schindelheim. The way their match happened was rather uncustomary for her chassidic parents but, America iz nisht Europe….

Ruth and Jack lived in Dallas, Texas, and had four children: Debbie, Joseph, Phyllis, and Georgette. Ruth was instrumental in founding the local Jewish day school in Dallas, which her children attended. Following Jack’s untimely death, the family moved to the West Side in Manhattan where Ruth was supported by Jack’s family.

Through a common family introduction, my father met Ruth over the summer of 1961. They felt a strong connection with one another, and knew they had each found a partner with whom they could build a new home together.

I distinctly remember the evening my father sat me down and said, “Joey, I’m going to marry a very nice lady.”

I was stunned and speechless.

“I know you’re going to love her,” he said.

And I looked up at him and said, “Daddy… mazel tov.”

In November my parents married in Lakewood, New Jersey, and that was the beginning of a fabled story of two quite different families forming one.

Blending Families

Our families hailed from different places, and were very different in character and upbringing. Ironically, there were two Debbies and two Joeys between us. So we had Little Debby, Big Debbie, Little Joey, and Big Joey (who later became Yussie, thankfully).

That was the issue of the children’s names, but we also needed to figure out how we’d refer to our parents. For us Schonfelds, it would be awkward and uncomfortable to refer to our new mother as “Mommy,” which is what we called our mother, Lottie. It would be equally uncomfortable for the Schindelheim kids to refer to our father as “Daddy,” which is what they called Jack.

My father became “Abba” for the Schindelheims, and Ruth became “Ima” to the Schonfelds. And oh, what an Ima.

My oldest sister Viva was 14 when my mother passed on.

Viva saw Mommy off into the car with Daddy, on what was to be our mother’s last journey to the hospital.

Mommy smiled weakly at her and said, “Viva, you’ll have to be the mommy now.”

Ostensibly, she meant it for the meantime, but those words became significant, when it was clear they were the last direct words that Viva heard from Mommy. She resolved firmly to take care of little Debby and myself.

Early on in Daddy’s new marriage, one of Ima’s children got into a fight with Little Debby and things got rough. Viva ran to Debby to protect her.

Ima hurried over to the scene and took Viva aside. “You’re all my children now. I’ll worry about all of you, and I’ll protect Debby.”

Years later, Viva said, “I looked into this lady’s warm brown eyes with my own teary ones and I thought, I hardly know her, but somehow, I have faith in her. I’d kept my promise to Mommy for two years, fulfilled her final request of me. Now I could finally hand over my younger siblings to Ima.”

In our family, the word “step” was a non-word. We just didn’t use terms like stepsister or stepmother. We were one family.

Ima’s axiom was, “Just love them all” — and she did, she really did.

Malka, another woman with a blended family who took counsel from Ima, told us that Ima said of us, her own blended family, “Look at the jewels I had to work with.”

She saw the four of us, Daddy’s children, not as extra burdens on her but as a privilege to raise.

And after a couple of years, our family of four plus four was joined by twins, Aryeh and Tammy… for a grand total of ten.

Malka remembers my mother telling her that in the beginning she went overboard with Daddy’s children to put the relationship on a good footing, giving us little gifts and special overtures to gain our confidence and trust.

Indeed, Viva recalls receiving small gifts from Ima.

“Didn’t that arouse jealousy in your own kids?” Malka wanted to know, and then told me, “Your Ima said that there’s no doubt that it did, but the biological children have a firmly cemented relationship with their mother and they’ll quickly get over the petty jealousy, while it’ll make all the difference to the new children.”

Ima gave us her all. She took on the role and was absolutely our mother. I felt like she was my rock during my formative years, and my siblings concur. I went through some rocky times as a teen, the rollercoaster that is adolescence, exacerbated by the vulnerability of orphanhood.

She’d sit with me and talk to me about what was happening for me. She’d listen and empathize and really be there for me, making me feel deeply like I was someone worthwhile. That was everything. She gave me my self-worth and self-esteem — and from there I could build on.

Ima had the qualities of utter authenticity and directness. She was honest about herself, honest about others. She didn’t let things fester, she addressed them. She got it out. That’s what would happen in our numerous talks. She’d let me know if I was wallowing, if she thought I could get up and do better, and through it all, I always knew she had my back.

I still remember what she said when I announced to my parents that I was going to learn in Lakewood. It wasn’t a natural path for me at all. Our background is more modern Orthodox, and I’d gone to Kerem B’Yavneh, a Hesder yeshivah in Israel, but in the process of figuring myself out I’d realized I wanted to become more yeshivish.

My father, he swallowed, his silence speaking. He’d so much wanted me to go to YU. Ima spoke for both of them. She saw my decision was final, she gave me only strength and optimism. “We knew you had it in you. You’re going to shine. You’re going to make us all proud.”

Her booming positivity echoes through the years.

The Rebbetzin

Ima was a classic rebbetzin. With a keen sixth sense, and her eye on the ball, she was my father’s ezer. She was queen on her side of the mechitzah, walking up and down the aisles of the shul on Rosh Hashanah, making sure everyone was comfortable. And when my father spoke at functions, she was there as well, beaming at him — and keeping in check, as needed. If he spoke too long and she felt the first stirs of restlessness in the crowd, she’d tug at his suit jacket!

They were some team: Rabbi and Rebbetzin of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. The synagogue started in the 1920s in a basement, and when my father came from England as Rabbi in 1950, there was just about a minyan. By 1956, there was a proper shul building. By the 1980s, 600 families called the shul their own.

It’s a dynamic, happening place and big supporters of Israel came out of that shul. Ima helped to steer the ship; in every way she was co-captain. She took care of the congregation, helping people toward Yiddishkeit, and taking those who needed extra care under her wing. All manner of interesting guests would turn up at their table for Shabbos. One time, a couple, baalei teshuvah from Tennessee, showed up for the meal. When they asked the guy what he did for a living, he said he was a lion tamer!

The RCA (Rabbinical Council of America) held conventions for those in the rabbinate. Once at a session for rebbetzins, the women were asked: What do you consider as having been a good day?

These were power women, many with careers alongside their klal duties.

“A day where I’ve dealt successfully with a client,” said a lawyer-cum-rebbetzin.

“When I get good reports from my children.” “When I don’t have aggravation.”

When it was Ima’s turn she said, “A good day is a day in which I helped someone.”

She hosted and helped and raised funds and was involved in causes, but she was no pushover; with it all you knew where you were holding with her. She was open as they come, she said it as it was. That’s how she helped others, and that’s how she was with all of her children, biological, married-in, or otherwise.

She was a very straight person, very direct, with “no filter.” She didn’t gloss things over. She was from Hungary, she said it the old way. She’d let you know right away if you’d put on weight, she always had what to say about your driving.

When I got engaged to a girl from a modest family she said, “Well, I thought we were going to set the world on fire with you….”

Yichus mattered and money was nice. She was a Hungarian lady, after all. But she soon fell in love with my wife. Prominent and poised as she was, she had no airs.

She was as generous as she was direct.

“You need a mink coat,” she told my wife, at some point where she deemed it would be becoming for her. “You know what? I’m getting you one.” And she did.

She was that European lady eminently proud of her sons. Her youngest, Aryeh, wears a spodik, and Ima, this Modern Orthodox rebbetzin, in her ubiquitous red dress, beamed to see him, kissing the top of his head, saying, “Look at my prince.”

Ima ran the Erna Lindenfeld Hachnasas Kallah fund of Queens, named for a war survivor who was a member of their shul. The fund subsidized the costs of weddings and helped people across New York and beyond. And so, this Young Israel rebbetzin got an award from Satmar Bikur Cholim. She knew so many people and could connect with vastly different crowds, from chassdishe European to modern American.

A legendary activist, she got deeply involved in Ohel, specifically with helping orphan children.

Back when she’d lived in Texas, Ima set up the Jewish day school in Dallas, and procured funding for it. There was a certain secular man called Jack Rubenstein who owned saloons and clubs in Dallas and had a lot of money. She got to know him and solicited quite a lot of funds for her day school. Years later, two days after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, it turned out that a man had shot the assassin. The assassin of the assassin; it was quite the story. The infamous man was called Jack Ruby, none other than the funder of the day school.

Like the lion tamer story, Ima often had wild stories like this. She was all about reaching out and helping; sometimes it was sensational, most times it was not.

Beloved Mother

There was a woman in the community who was not quite okay. She was all alone, her husband had left her, and she didn’t get along with her daughter. Ima was every bit a mother to her.

When Ima passed away in 2016, at the age of 93, this woman sat at the shivah and wouldn’t leave. “I feel like I’ve lost my own mother,” she said.

That was the sentiment in the shul. Her loss was absolutely personal.

When she passed away, she still looked amazing and had her wits and faculties about her; it felt like she went in her prime.

A week before her petirah she was in my home. It was Chanukah and she was sitting near the menorah in that red dress of hers. Someone smashed into her parked car, and when she was told of it, she smiled widely and brushed it off. “Oh, we’ll get a new one. I’m with the children now… it’s Chanukah….”

Unflappable and smiling, a mother till the end.

In 2015, many of the combined Schonfeld and Schindelheim children and grandchildren living in Israel were gathered around Ima in my sister Viva Pinchuk’s home in Yerushalayim. My sisters had prevailed upon Ima to gather the many grandchildren and great-grandchildren and tell her life story. It was historic and remarkable and Viva videoed it all.

In classic Ima-style, she opened her speech by scanning the room and saying, “My G-d, I’m thunderstruck! I can’t get over how many people you are… and you’re all mine! And you’re all so beautiful!”

Oh, Ima. You’re all mine! That was her line, and she meant it deeply. She absolutely felt they were all hers. And the children felt she was theirs.

She shared about her life, as rebbetzin of Kew Gardens Hills, as mother of ten, some hers, some his, and their wonderful twins.

“How did you do it?” they asked her.

“Oh, it was easy,” she said, smiling disarmingly.

“Easy, what do you mean?”

“Well, yeah,” said one of the grandchildren. “Because, you know how Ima saw it? Way back when we were in elementary school, a few of us got together at Grandma’s house in Queens for a sleepover. At some point we got into a little discussion about the family. ‘Well, she’s not our real cousin,’ one of the girls said, of one of the granddaughters who was not biologically a cousin since she was from the other family. She was upset to hear that, and went running upstairs to Grandma. ‘Grandma, how do I know which ones are my real cousins?’

“Ima answered directly, ‘Well, which ones do you love?’”

As children we knew this for ourselves. Her love for us was boundless.

On my mother, Lottie’s, 50th yahrtzeit, my sisters in Israel planned a major yahrtzeit seudah in my mother’s memory. My wife, Peri, and I were eager to go, but I wondered if Ima would be sensitive about it.

Tammy, one of her twins, asked Ima if it was hard for her that one side of the family was off to commemorate the yahrtzeit of my father’s first wife.

“The only thing I feel bad about is that I get all of her nachas,” was Ima’s extraordinary response.

“But they’re a source of nachas because you raised them!” Tammy said.

“Maybe,” answered Ima, “but how lucky am I to have such beautiful children that she left for me….”

Numerous baby girls from both the Schonfelds and Schindelheims have been named Ruthie and/or Ruchel.

She’s our Ima. She’s our Grandma. Eternally.

Sori’s Story

My daughter, Sori, has her own story of two marriages, and when it came to blending her new family, she turned to Grandma for advice.

Sori’s first marriage went sour after a few short years, during which two children were born. At the end of it, she was left in a financial rut and emotional turmoil, on her own, with two small children.

A few years later, hashgachah led her to meet Yonah, divorced with four children of his own, living in Baltimore.

Yonah is undoubtedly the best thing that ever happened to Sori and by extension, our family. Together, Yonah and Sori have three adorable boys.

Sori often spoke to Grandma about her children, his children, and their children. “Just love them,” was an oft-repeated refrain, Grandma’s mantra.

Ima told her that at the beginning she went very easy on the disciplining of her spouse’s children. She shared with Sori that this was harder for my father; he wasn’t able to supplant his emotions as keenly as she could, and when one of her children acted disrespectfully, he turned to strict discipline. She was put in a position where she had to choose between her new husband and her own child. It was excruciating, she told Sori, but she chose to be supportive of her husband.

“If the marriage is rocky, the children will suffer as a result. If the marriage is good, the children will eventually fall in line,” she said.

Sori and Yonah were active in building a strong marriage. They were in therapy; the children were in therapy. “We did hundreds of hours,” Sori said, “a second marriage needs coddling.”

As father and grandfather, I’m in awe of my Sori and Yonah and all of our grandchildren from their beautiful blended family.

Ima was proud, too. Sori said that whenever they were out in a crowd, Ima would say to people, “This is my Sori.”


(Originally featured in Family First, Issue 898)

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