Two Rabbis—A Father and Son—Discuss the Changing Landscape of the American Rabbinate

After Shacharit services at his Queens synagogue one recent Friday morning, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, as on most weekday mornings, drives right back to his home. To check his e-mail.

Several e-mail messages have arrived overnight from members of his congregation, Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills, and from members of the wider Jewish community: personal questions, halachic she’eilot, details about upcoming shul events, et cetera. “It’s a typical morning’s variety of e-mail messages,” says Rabbi Schonfeld, who two years ago succeeded his father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, as spiritual leader of the synagogue that has grown over the last six decades into one of the neighborhood’s most prominent Orthodox congregations. The OU synagogue was founded by the senior Rabbi Schonfeld, who has been involved with the OU for more than fifty years, serving on the Joint Kashrut Commission, national convention committees and political action committees, among others. The younger Rabbi Schonfeld worked for OU Kosher for twenty-seven years before taking over his father’s position at the shul.

E-mail, says Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld, has increasingly become a lifeline to his congregants—it makes it easier to stay in touch. “I spend a good part of my day answering e-mails. You’re tethered to your computer.”

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, who doesn’t have an e-mail account, says he is not a fan of the online form of communication. “E-mails are impersonal,” he says. They hinder rabbi-congregant communication.

Two years ago, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld (right) succeeded his father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, as spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills.

Two years ago, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld (right) succeeded his father, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, as spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Garden Hills.

“We talk about e-mail a lot,” Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld says. “It makes me a better rabbi because I can respond to people’s questions instantly. My father feels that’s losing the personal touch.”

“It’s destroying the whole relationship,” Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld asserts.

The Schonfeld rabbis are sitting this Friday afternoon in the senior Rabbi Schonfeld’s living room, a block from the Young Israel. Over plates of steaming potato kugel, an ongoing discussion continues. Father and son disagree, respectfully, over the value of such high-tech communication, but agree that e-mail is the “major” change between their rabbinical generations.

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, now his synagogue’s emeritus rabbi, turns ninety this year. He says that his views on the changing rabbinate are typical of his generation, as his son’s views are of his.

Another major generational difference: Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld saw his role as a “social worker,” on call daily to deal with congregants’ personal and theological questions. His son’s rabbinate, he says, has to a large degree become similar to a shul’s executive director. He’s called upon to coordinate his congregation’s burgeoning number of programs, including seminars, guest speakers and scholars-in-residence.

“I’m involved in every aspect [of running the shul],” mainly through e-mail, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld says. “A lot of these things should be left to [the synagogue] committee.”

“My son,” says Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, “has more events going on than I did.”

In Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld’s years in the rabbinate and as a communal leader, he established a reputation as a master sermon deliverer and a raconteur. At Yeshiva University, he says, he studied homiletics, which prepared him for a career as a public speaker.

At Beth Medrash Govoha in Lakewood, New Jersey, where Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld received his semichah, there was no instruction on how to give a sermon. “I studied from the master,” he says, by watching his father in shul each week.

Fluent in Yiddish, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld says he could soothe worried contemporaries with some words in the mamaloshen. Few of his son’s congregants, he says, know more than a few phrases in Yiddish—which is a loss. “It’s a different attitude,” a lost bond.

As time for Minchah draws nearer, father and son mention other changes they’ve seen in the Orthodox rabbinate; for one, congregants’ advanced Jewish learning. While Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld’s congregation at one time numbered three dozen men with Yeshiva University ordination, most members were relatively unfamiliar with classic Jewish texts. Today, there are fewer musmachim in the congregation, but most members have an extensive Jewish education.

Another change is congregants’ decreased respect for the pulpit rabbi. In Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld’s day, members would routinely turn to their congregation’s rabbi to answer halachic questions or to serve as mesader kiddushin at weddings. Today, a growing number of men, including those who have grown up in the congregation, give these honors to the roshei yeshivah of the institutions where they have studied, sometimes for only a short time. “It’s hurtful,” Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld says.

Thirdly, congregants’ lack of interest in a rabbi’s secular knowledge. Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, who comes from a Gerrer Chassidic family but studied at the University of London, says his father encouraged him to pursue both a Jewish and general education. “He wanted me to be a ‘Doktor Rabbiner,’ a rabbi with a PhD. My father’s generation expected their rabbis to be secularly educated.” Many Orthodox Jews today have little respect for a rabbi’s secular credentials, he says.

Like other Orthodox rabbis of his generation, Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld was heavily involved in the wider Jewish community, working on behalf of Soviet Jewry and Zionist causes. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld calls himself more “parochial,” concentrating on his congregation and local community.

None of Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld’s sons, all of whom have yeshivah educations, have entered the rabbinate. “I don’t think you’ll find three generations of rabbis [in one family],” he says. Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld loves his job, but a career in business or in the other professions offer young Orthodox men means to make a living and fulfill their Jewish commitments without the demands of the pulpit rabbinate. “There are other ways to contribute to the Jewish community.”

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld agrees.

The conversation about the changing rabbinate ends.

With a few hours remaining until Shabbat, Rabbi Yoel Schonfeld wishes his father a “good Shabbos” and drives home. “I have to check my e-mails,” he says.

Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld smiles.

Steve Lipman is a staff writer for the Jewish Week in New York.

This article was featured in the Fall 2013 issue of Jewish Action.