Friday, June 2, 2023 -
Print Edition

Rabbi Rosenfeld dies

Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld

Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld died on Jan. 26, 2015, one day before Auschwitz was liberated 70 years ago, in Denver. The man who rose from the ashes of Auschwitz to inspire faith when none seemed possible was gone.

The simple graveside service, held later that day at Rose Hill Cemetery, took place on an unnaturally warm afternoon.

Mourners stood united in their grief, but each heart beat to its own memories. Rabbis, Hillel Academy students, friends and acquaintances bowed their heads in personal reverie.

Rabbi Rosenfeld was at Hillel Academy for 25 years — 16 of them as principal. His careers at EDOS, the DAT Minyan and as author of numerous textbooks commissioned by Torah Umesorah further his esteem.

But it was the one-on-one, personal moments he shared with others that inscribed him forever in their souls.

Erica “Tova” Rosenfeld, Rabbi Rosenfeld’s wife of 60 years, watched broken and inconsolable despite her family’s comforting arms.

The massive gathering at Rose Hill testified to the greatness of a life that emerged from unforgiving evil to serve as a leader of Jewish education and a beacon of hope to thousands.

Rosenfeld was 14 when he was deported to Auschwitz with his father David, mother Chana and younger brother Yoel, who was torn from his arms and gassed.

His father, whom he depended upon throughout their ordeal, died in the final death march from Birkenau eight days before liberation.

Rosenfeld walked out of Auschwitz a free man haunted by unimaginable tragedy.

How does one pay tribute to a complex personality that battled ceaseless nightmares to become one of the brightest lights in Denver and the world?

It was extremely difficult for the eulogists.

Still they conquered tearful assaults to express love and gratitude to a man who survives in every teaching, drash, whispered blessing and his unforgettable smile.

Rabbi Daniel Alter, head of school at DAT, took his place at the podium first. Em-braced by gentle breezes, he faced one of his hardest challenges.

During their time together, Alter developed a close relationship with Rosenfeld, who was the resident sage  at the DAT Minyan.

When he was principal of Hillel, Rosenfeld would make sure that each child made it safely home on snowy days, Alter said. And if a bus driver was unable to show up due to bad weather, the rabbi drove the bus himself.

Alter’s voice constantly cracked under the weight of his loss.

“Many of us have heard some of the difficult stories that Rabbi Rosenfeld told us for a number of years. He would deliver the drash every Shabbat Shirah (the anniversary of his liberation) to a packed crowd, most whom came to shul just to hear him.

“He felt it was very important to educate people about the horrors of the Holocaust,” Alter said. “I, for one, will always be personally grateful that my older children along with children in our community had the opportunity to hear these important stories.”

Alter told the story of an incident that occurred at Auschwitz during Sukkot.

A rabbi in the camp instructed the inmates to save crusts of bread for three days. Then they snuck out behind the mess hall, grabbed firewood and pulled it over their heads to make a sukkah.

Rosenfeld told his son Meir that the rabbi felt this action “would bring the Mashiach.” But the messiah did not appear. “What happened when the Mashiach never came?” Meir asked.

“We started to collect potato peels to light the menorah on Chanukah,” Rosenfeld replied.

“This was a man of unbreakable faith,” Alter said.

Rabbi Rosenfeld visited his grandson Josh when he joined the IDF.

“When he saw Josh in his uniform with his gun, he said that when he was 15 he prayed to G-d to send an angel to save the Jews from the evil Nazis. But never in his life did he think that his own grandson would be that angel, devoted to protecting the Jewish people.”

During the years that Rabbi Rosenfeld and his wife lived in Israel, he founded an organization ensuring that future Jewish educators were immersed in Torah, Alter said.

“Education was his life.”

Rabbi Meir Rosenfeld, one of Rosenfeld’s two sons, spoke next. “I updated four obituaries for my father,” he said. “He was very ill and not expected to live. Then I’d walk into the room and see him up and smiling.

“Dad,” Meir said, “this time I want you to hear your obituary.”

Rabbi Rosenfeld’s death certificate says that he died of a weak heart.

“I strongly disagree,” Meir said. “You had the strongest heart in the world. There was a time when you never believed you would grow up to be 16. You were so overjoyed to see your grandchildren.”

Meir said that his father “never told a lie in his life. He was an example to us every day. Every time I called him and asked how he was doing, he would say, ‘Baruch Hashem!’’’

How appropriate “that so many years after he was liberated from Auschwitz, my father is finally liberated from his mortal coil.”

Meir read an email sent by his fourth son Maury.

“It is often said at funerals that we are not mourning a loss but celebrating a life,” Maury wrote. “But these words do not apply to your service.

“You were the sweetest, kindest man around,” Maury wrote. “Your smile was visible from a mile away.

“I hope you are with your father, mother and brother, and that they are waiting for you with open arms in Gan Eden.”

Rabbi Joey Rosenfeld, Meir’s third son, walked over to the lectern and quoted an email from Meir’s first-born son Rabbi Joshua Rosenfeld before touching upon his own feelings.

“I knew my grandfather experienced moments of deep pain,” Joshua wrote. “His was a complex, multi-faceted cry for faith.”

Joey Rosenfeld said his grandfather “hoped against hope. This permeated everything he did. He was eternally hoping, and translated this into action.

“He built a family, a community, out of the ashes of Auschwitz.”

As she listened to her son and grandchildren reminisce about her husband, Tova straightened up and gazed at them lovingly.

“I had the merit to be the grandson of this amazing individual,” Joey said.  “It is praiseworthy to have his blood in me.

“My grandfather has passed away. But he will live on longer than his life — and mine.”

Israel Rosenfeld arrived in the US in 1948 under a special Czechoslovakian visa and studied in a yeshiva in Brooklyn.

Alone in the US, he spoke almost no English but excelled in Hebrew.

Rosenfeld graduated from the Hebrew Teachers Institute in New York.

In 1952, Rosenfeld was drafted into the US Army and stationed at Newport News, Va.

The only serviceman who kept kosher, he found himself in an unusual predicament, so he went to the local synagogue for assistance.

There he found Rabbi Samuel Adelman and his family, who “adopted” Rosenfeld. They would meet again.

Upon his discharge from the army, Rosenfeld obtained his first teaching position at the Westchester Day School in Mammaroneck, NJ.

While there, he traveled to Israel for the first time and met his future wife, Tova.

Rosenfeld was hired to teach at Hillel Academy in 1956.

Rabbis Rosenfeld and Adelman had an unexpected reunion when they both found themselves in Denver — Rosenfeld at Hillel Academy and Adelman at BMH.

Adelman hired his former  “adopted son” to teach at the BMH Hebrew School, the first of many venues outside Hillel in which Rosenfeld taught in Denver.

Rosenfeld also helped inspire BMH teenagers to attend yeshiva.

During his tenure at Hillel, he earned an MA in school administration at DU and his elementary school principal’s certificate from the Colorado Dept. of Education.

The textbooks he authored on Jewish education are still utilized around the world.

In the 1980s, newly arrived students from the former Soviet Union were hesitant to enter the doors of Hillel Academy.

But Rosenfeld, who was fluent in Russian, English, Czech, Yiddish, Hebrew and Hungarian, put them at ease.

“I had your same problems,”he told the students.  “I was able to do it, and so will you.”

The mourners followed as the pallbearers lifted the coffin and carried it to the grave, where Rabbi Yaakov Meyer recited prayers and offered uplifting words.

Those standing eight rows back could hear the pine casket being lowered into the open ground.

Birds perched motionless on wires, as if they were paying mute respect.

Groups of three, four and five men performed the mitzvah of shoveling the earth on top of the coffin.

Due to the lateness of the hour, their movements seemed driven by sorrowful, subtle urgency.

Kaddish, the mourner’s prayer, filled the air.

Rabbi Rosenfeld’s family slowly left the grave, and two circumspect lines formed on either side.

As mourners gradually departed the cemetery, they encountered the Rosenfeld family sitting together on the side to accept condolences.

The procession stopped again and again to console them with hugs and in silence.

Suddenly, high above in the brilliant blue sky, several geese flew behind their leader and winged their way to an unknown destination.

There are no coincidences.

Rabbi Israel Rosenfeld is survived by his wife Erica “Tova” Rosenfeld; sons Rabbi Meir (Debby) Rosenfeld and David Rosenfeld;  four grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.

Feldman Mortuary made the arrangements.

Andrea Jacobs may be reached at [email protected]

Copyright © 2015 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Leave a Reply