The twenty-seventh of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rabbi Mordechai Shraga (Fabian) Schonfeld (1923-2020), Rav of Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Born in Poland to a family of Gerrer chassidim, his family moved to Vienna shortly after his birth and remained there until 1938. Due to his father’s connections, he met many Gedolim such as Rav Meir Shapiro, the Rogotzchover Gaon and the Imrei Emes. When his father asked the Imrei Emes to give him a bracha that he should grow up to be a talmid chacham, the Imrei Emes responded that he first needs a bracha to be a G-d-fearing person. His father was the secretary of the World Agudah and editor of its newspaper haDerech which made him a target for the Gestapo. He escaped to Czechoslovakia prior to the Anschluss and his family followed a few months later. At one point as they were traveling by train, they were stopped by German guards who ordered the young Mordechai Shraga to hand over his tefillin. He refused but his family insisted that he turn them over rather than risk his life. As they were disembarking from the train another officer returned the tefillin to him saying that if he was willing to endanger himself for them, they must be very important.
From there they went to France, where they were able to obtain visas to England, where they spent the war years. Right after the war Rav Fabian married Charlotte Jacobovitz, sister of the future Chief Rabbi, and in 1950 they moved to the United States for him to study for smicha under Rabbi Joseph B Soloveitchik. In 1953 he was offered a job at a large shul in Worcester, Massachusetts, but turned it down in favor of a small minyan in Kew Gardens Hills. Within two years it had eight-hundred members and was named Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills.
A few years later his wife passed away, and he later married Ruth Schindelheim. Their blended family, consisting of four children from each side, was soon increased by two more. In addition to his affiliation with YU, he also retained a close relationship with the Gerrer Rebbe. He started to give hechsherim to stores in Queens, not for money, but to make sure his congregants had access to what they needed. He was involved in many national organizations including the RCA of which he was president, in charge of the OU kashrus division, and served as chairman of Poalei Agudas Yisrael of America.
In an interview shortly before his passing he told the following story about Rav Aharon Kotler. “I was sitting in my office in the shul, and Rav Soloveitchik was on the phone. He said, ‘I would like you to come and talk to me.’ I went to see him, and he said, ‘I got a call from Rav Aharon Kotler. He’s having a dinner for Chinuch Atzma’i, and he asked me to appoint a committee from the RCA to help with the dinner.’ I said, ‘Rebbe why are you asking me?’ He replied, ‘Because you’re the only one in my shiur who has a background connected with Agudah. I want you to be the chairman.’ When I got back to the office, my secretary tells me, ‘Rabbi, there’s an old Jew named Kotler who wants to talk to you. I don’t know who he is.’ I said, ‘It’s okay. I’ll take his call.’ “I picked up the phone and heard, “Rav Scheinfeld, du redt Kotler fun Lakewood (this is Kotler from Lakewood). I heard from Rav Soloveitchik that you undertook to be the chairman of the Chinuch Atzma’i committee from the RCA, so I wanted to tell you yasher koach.’ “I have two letters from him signed, ‘Yedidi mei’az, Aharon Kotler.’ That was because I helped him with Chinuch Atzma’i.”
When he was once asked how it was that he managed to navigate among so many different organizations that generally don’t work together, he explained that this is why refer to Ha’oskim b’tzarchei tzibur b’emunah, what is important in public life is believing in what you are doing. When I see a cause and believe that it is the right cause to support, I don’t pay any attention to the politics. During his sixty years in the rabbinate, he is not known to have ever gotten involved in politics.
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The twenty-eighth of Kislev is the yahrzeit of Rebbitzen Tzivia (Cila) Walkin (1914-1999). Born in Radin, where her grandfather, Rav Moshe Landinski, was Rosh Yeshiva, she grew up next door to the Chofetz Chaim. She was a close friend of Feigele, the youngest daughter of the Chofetz Chaim. She married Rav Shmuel Dovid Walkin, whose father was the Chief Rabbi of Belarus.
When the war broke out Rabbi Walkin was able to obtain visas from Japanese Consul Chiune Sugihara. With three children in tow, they were able to escape to Kobe, Japan, and after a year transferred to Shanghai. There were 16,000 Jewish refugees crammed into an area less than one mile square, including hundreds of yeshiva bachurim. Food options were very limited, and they subsisted during the week on oatmeal and fruits and vegetables. Occasionally, they were able to buy some fish or a chicken for Shabbos often sharing one chicken with the adjoining family, somehow making it feed twelve people. Now and then relief boxes would arrive from America and they had a Hershey bar as a treat. On Shabbos day a soup kitchen served meatless cholent for everyone.
In their tiny, crowded apartment they managed to make weddings for three couples who had arrived in Shanghai already engaged. In 1946 they received a visa that allowed them to move to the United States. They settled in Crown Heights and for the next several years Rabbi Walkin worked on making sure every refugee from China had a visa to come to the United States and was able to find a home there. Rabbi Walkin opened a shul in Crown Heights which became a magnet for the yeshiva bachurim they knew in Shanghai, many congregating in the Walkin home frequently until they got married. They arranged shidduchim for 75 couples who looked to them as surrogate parents. They were the focus of Rebbitzen Walkin’s life for many years. Later they moved to Queens as her husband continued in the rabbinate. As Russian Jews began to arrive in the United States in the 1970s and 80s their home once again became an address to which refugees could turn.
She would say that she never spoke negatively about others, not because she had grown up next door to the Chofetz Chaim, but because she never saw anything bad in others and thus had no lashon hara to relate.