(December 20, 2020 / JNS) Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld of blessed memory reached the pinnacle of success on so many levels. He was a model pulpit rabbi. He was a major Torah scholar and posek (decisor).
In a 2008 interview with “Jewish Action,” he said, “Today, the rabbi has to be a qualified psychiatrist, psychologist, and above all, social worker—which is really what Moshe Rabeinu (Moses) 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, though rabbis shying away from politics is a modern phenomenon. Great Rabbis, like Rabbi 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 whom I was very close to, the late Rabbi Aron Soloveichik, was the first to speak out against the Oslo Accords. Most rabbis at the time did not even voice an opinion.
I was privileged to be able to travel to Israel with him and 10 other rabbis, including Rabbi Zvulun Lieberman of blessed memory of Congregation Beth Torah in Brooklyn—whose son, Rabbi Hillel Lieberman, was murdered in the Second Intifada—and Rabbi Max Schreier of the Avenue N Jewish Center in Brooklyn to visit then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin in October 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 the late Rabbi Schulem Rubin 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 America and in Israel. The rabbis of today could learn incredibly valuable lessons from these powerhouses. Rabbi Schonfeld was at the top of the list of those 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 Schonfeld was respected because of his hands-on approach. He invited me to speak on a number of occasions at his synagogue, the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and he was always supportive and encouraging.
In 2003, when I invited Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (who was a Knesset member at the 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. I remember speaking at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and a member stood up and criticized me for having Netanyahu at the event.
Rabbi Schonfeld helped me out. He rescued me. My feeling at the time was that although 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, his first press briefing and discussion was under the auspices of Rabbi Schonfeld and held at the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.
Rabbi Schonfeld was a giant among men and the consummate rabbis’ 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 Jerusalem.
Dr. Joseph Frager is first vice president of the National Council of Young Israel.
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