Memory Lane: Rabbi Dr. Eliezer Schonfeld
In a radio studio somewhere in New York City, stands an elderly Rabbi, holding forth in Hungarian. He is not broadcasting to an American audience; his words are being streamed into the Communist-controlled Hungary, giving its beleaguered Jews hope and inspiration.
This man, who held distinguished careers in Rabbanus in two very different worlds, chose to spend his golden years— after having retired from a brilliant Rabbinic tenure—in Boro Park of yesteryear.
Rabbi Schonfeld was born in Petrovoselo, Yugoslavia in 1880. He was sent to yeshiva in Bonyad, Hungary, and from there, he went on to the prestigious Pressburger yeshiva, then headed by the Cheshev Sofer—receiving his semicha from there in 1907.
He married the daughter of Rav Ephraim Furth, who was known as a brilliant Talmid Chacham. His Rebbetzin, likewise, was descended from a long line of Rabbanim. Tragedy struck when Rav Furth passed away suddenly at the age of fifty-one.
Rabbi Schonfeld succeeded his father-in-law as the chief Rabbi Nagy Karoly (Krule) in Hungary. WWI wrought havoc and hunger upon Hungary as well, and after the war Rabbi Schonfeld was decorated by Empror Karl I for his humanitarian work. This recognition—along with his oratory ability and charisma—enabled him to enter the upper echelons of government to plead on behalf of his People.
He was also a prolific writer. He translated the Shulchan Aruch into Hungarian, and wrote extensively on Jewish matters in Hungarian. Many of these articles were published in the American Hungarian-Jewish publications. He would take on the Hungarian anti-Semitic press—fearlessly—and his life was frequently threatened for daring to do so.
He also used his influence to prevail upon the school system to allow their Jewish students to keep Shabbos.
In 1925, he brought his family to America, and settled in the Bronx—where he was eventually awarded lifetime Rabbinate of Congregation Beth David Agudas Achim, where he would serve until the neighborhood deteriorated.
In America he conducted a Jewish program on radio on WPCH—in the years of 1925-1932—which could be heard around the world. IN later years, from 1955-1970, he broadcast in Hungarian on Voice of America—for which fan mail would arrive from throughout the world.
During his tenure, Rabbi Schonfeld served as honorary president of Agudas Harabanim, Vaad Harabnim of the Bronx, and Vaad Harabanim of Boro Park; Founder and executive of numerous Hungarian alumni associations, and he was in the leadership of dozens of other kashrus and educational organizing bodies.
The Bronx famously deteriorated around 1960, and many Jewish families exited the area. Rabbi Schonfeld came to Boro Park around that time—He lived on 46th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues. He davened at the Badishel Shul—led by Rabbi Yisroel Chaim Hirsch—which was located across from his home.
Rabbi Schonfeld’s grandchildren hold the fondest memories spending time with their beloved grandfather, first in the Bronx, and later in Boro Park. They recalled his great sense of humor and his charisma, as well his love for Torah—all of which he employed to lift up and inspire his fellow Jews.