Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld| September 14, 2021
"I inherited some of the passion and I am outspoken, but regretfully, not the same degree of tact"
Took over: Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills in Flushing, New York
Succeeded: Father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld
Before I took over
I was working full time for the OU and visiting a food plant in Buffalo, New York, on behalf of OU kashrus when I got a call from my father saying, “Mazel tov, they just voted you in as assistant rabbi.” Before that, I was the rav of a shul in Staten Island, New York, and before that in Twin Rivers, New Jersey. I was my father’s assistant rabbi from 1991 to 2011, and was elected full-time rabbi when he retired.
The biggest challenge I faced right away
How to be my own person while keeping my father’s kavod in mind at all times. It was my father’s preference that I succeed him, yet it was still difficult at times that the shul was no longer his. I remember calling Rabbi Ilan Feldman, who was in the same position, for suggestions, and he told me I cannot just be an extension of my father — I had to have my own hashkafos and make my own decisions while always maintaining respect.
My first big decision
I realized that for the most part, it would not be respectful nor wise of me to change my father’s customs, so I kept intact what he instituted aside for a few minor procedures: the nusach for the tefillah for Medinas Yisrael, davening on summer Fridays at 7 p.m., which is sometimes a conflict between plag and shkiyah, certain minhagim regarding the way hoshanos are done. Actually, my father told me to be my own person and make the changes I wanted. When he was the rav, the shul said Tehillim every day for Eretz Yisrael. I felt this had become too routine, so I decided we would say Tehillim when Eretz Yisrael was in crisis. “What are you doing?” my father asked — he was very surprised. “You told me to be independent,” I said, and I explained my reasoning. “Yes, but not that!”
What I wish I’d known from the start
That a rabbi has to be unfailingly discreet. A young person once asked me a sh’eilah, which I answered seriously. I later mentioned to someone else that I couldn’t believe I’d gotten such a question. Of course I didn’t reveal the name of the person who asked, but the person I mentioned it to was friends with the one who had asked the sh’eilah and unknowingly repeated my comment at their Shabbos table. It was very embarrassing, although thankfully it did not ruin our relationship.
When I miss my father the most
When there’s some kind of personality clash or interpersonal issue in the shul community. There was once a conflict between two prominent individuals in the shul, and I was caught in the middle. My father was a very wise man. He was niftar last Chanukah at 97, and I miss his advice. Even now, I sometimes get involved in heated written exchanges with organizational heads, and I wonder if my father would agree that it’s worth keeping up those exchanges, justified as I am.
Something my father did that inspires me
Since my father’s petirah, we’ve found copies of letters he wrote to members on both major and minor occasions, as well as his correspondence with other rabbanim. I learned from my father what a simple phone call from the rabbi means to a shul member, whether during crisis or at times of joy. My father’s Friday phone calls were legendary — he was a big phone person, and he was committed to being there for people, with no thought of his own career, just a deep concern for kavod habriyos and kavod hameis.
Something my father did that I could never do
My father, a talmid of Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik, was a member of the Synagogue Council of America. He took on Reform rabbis very successfully in his day, and he knew how to build a relationship without compromising an iota. My father was outspoken when it came to Orthodoxy and unafraid to confront people, but he did it with great tact and graciousness. I inherited some of the passion and I am outspoken, but regretfully, not the same degree of tact.
Something I do today that my father wouldn’t have done
Give shiurim via Zoom — although granted, I couldn’t have pictured that either when I first took over!
How I’m similar to my father
In personality and in hashkafah, although my father was a Yeshiva University musmach and I learned in Lakewood.
And how I’m different
My father was a master of discretion. He used to tell me that I’m too openly emotional and passionate, especially in my writing. Additionally, my father was raised in Warsaw, and his chassidish background lingered in his soul and in a warm connection with the Gerrer Rebbe. I never had that, I wasn’t raised with any chassidish feeling! On the other hand, my father was much more confident in Modern Orthodoxy and its impact and ability to be transmitted to the next generation. In terms of drashos, my father’s drashos were focused on the teachings of the Sfas Emes, Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch, and his rebbi, Rav Soloveitchik. I’m more inclusive in whom I quote — I quote from sources throughout the Litvish, contemporary, and chassidish world. My favorite happens to be Rav Chaim Shmuelevitz ztz”l of the Mirrer yeshivah.
If I could ask my father one question
What do you think can be done to restore the growth of the shul? Like many shuls in New York City, we’re suffering from demographic change, and I wonder if there’s anything I can do as the rabbi to reach the younger generation and involve them more in community life. —
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 878)
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