Rabbi Joseph Grunblatt, the spiritual leader of the Queens Jewish Center in Forest Hills for nearly four decades, died on Nov. 23 in New York Hospital Queens of a recent heart attack. He was 86.
The rabbi retired from the synagogue’s pulpit in 2006, and had remained active until his health began to fail a few years ago.
A native of Leipzig, Germany, he escaped with his family to England before the outbreak of World War II, and later came to the United States. He and his first wife, the late Esther Grunblatt, were active in the resettlement in Queens of immigrants from the former Soviet Union.
“He was a man of the highest integrity — always into learning. At the same time he had a great sense of humor,” said Rabbi Fabian Schonfeld, the emeritus spiritual leader of the Young Israel of Kew Gardens Hills. Like Rabbi Grunblatt, Rabbi Schonfeld was a Jewish refugee in wartime London, the pair studying together in the same yeshiva beginning in 1942. “We’ve been friends ever since,” said Rabbi Schonfeld, who delivered a eulogy on Sunday in the packed sanctuary of the Queens Jewish Center.
Rabbi Grunblatt would tell the story of the day he and his parents had sought refuge in a shelter in London during an attack by German bombers. Offering no reason, the young Joseph insisted that his family leave the shelter.
To quiet their crying son, the Grunblatts acquiesced. Minutes later, the rabbi would remember, a bomb blew up the shelter they had just left.
In Forest Hills, where a growing number of émigrés from Uzbekistan, and some haredi Jews have settled in recent decades, both founding their own congregations, Rabbi Grunblatt worked to maintain the character of his mainstream, Modern Orthodox synagogue.
The rabbi was also active in the wider Jewish community, serving as vice president of the Rabbinical Council of America, and president of the Vaad Harabanim of Queens.
“He devoted his life to the keliha [Jewish community],” said Shimon Shamilzadeh, a longtime Forest Hills resident and former member of the Queens Jewish Center who recently moved to Cedarhurst, L.I. “He gave of himself 24/7.”
Shamilzadeh, whose family became friends with Rabbi Grunblatt, told of a member of the congregation whose son was studying at a yeshiva in Israel when the first Gulf War broke out in January 1991. Worried about Scud missiles being fired from Iraq, the man’s relatives and friends advised him to bring his son back to New York City.
Rabbi Grunblatt advised the synagogue member to have his son remain in Israel — safely, it turned out.
And, Shamilzadeh said, the rabbi turned up late one night, unannounced, at the synagogue member’s home. Rabbi Grunblatt explained that he knew the family would be watching news reports on television about the situation in Israel, and would be nervous. “I wanted to be here with you,” he had said.
“He reached out and touched everybody,” said Suri Shamilzadeh, Shimon’s wife.
Rabbi Grunblatt, who studied in Brooklyn at the Torah Vodaas and in upstate Monsey at the Bais Medrash Elyon yeshivas, served as a pulpit rabbi in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., and in Montreal before coming to the Queens Jewish Center in 1967. He assumed his position here the week the Six-Day War began.
Rabbi Grunblatt also studied at the City College of New York, the New School for Social Research, and McGill University. He was an adjunct professor at Touro College and the author of “Exile and Redemption: Meditations on Jewish History” (Ktav, 1988).
After retiring in 2006 from the pulpit of the Queens Jewish Center, Rabbi Grunblatt continued to attend worship services there, sitting in the pews like any member of the congregation.
“He was a humble, humble man,” Shamilzadeh said. “He was an orator, a philosopher.”
In addition to his wife, Bella, Rabbi Grunblatt is survived by three children, Akiva, David and Chanah Leah Merlin, and several grandchildren.
Shamilzadeh said that the head of a yeshiva he had attended in Scranton, Pa., unexpectedly met Rabbi Grunblatt at a shiva call in Queens and declared that he owed the rabbi membership dues.
Rabbi Grunblatt, confused that someone from out of town would make such a statement, asked for an explanation. The visitor from Scranton answered that Shamilzadeh called every Saturday night to relate the contents of that day’s Shabbat sermon. “I feel I’m part of your kehilah,” he told Rabbi Grunblatt.