Rabbi Mendy Sasonkin was so many things. To so many people.
He was the spiritual leader at Anshe Sfard and “a personal rabbi and confidant to so many,” as community member Joe Kanfer puts it. Along with his wife Kaila, Rabbi Sasonkin was an emissary for the Chabad movement. He was a father and a grandfather.
Rabbi Sasonkin “was a friend to all of us and like a brother to many,” says David Koch, CEO of the Jewish Community Board of Akron.
When he died on Simchat Torah, Oct. 1, the Akron Jewish community (and beyond) was left bereft. As people reflected on Rabbi Sasonkin’s life and legacy, it became clear that the community was also left with a sense of awe.
“He seemed to have 48 hours in every day,” says Kanfer. Rabbi Sasonkin had “an unbelievable energy, commitment to the community, and brilliance of human understanding. He had not only knowledge of text but knowledge of people.”
Rabbi Sasonkin was the eldest of nine siblings, born in Israel to Rabbi Avraham and Sara Rivka Sasonkin, who served as emissaries of Rebbe Schneerson OBM. At age 17, he moved to Crown Heights in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he studied at a Chabad yeshiva. After graduating, he was selected to serve as an emissary to the Chabad yeshiva in Johannesburg, South Africa.
As newlyweds, Rabbi and Kaila Sasonkin moved to Northeast Ohio in 1989. From 1990 to 1995, they led the Agudas Achim congregation in Canton.
“When Rabbi Sasonkin took the pulpit at Anshe Sfard [in 1995] we were at a crossroads,” says Joel Stile, longtime president of the congregation. “We weren’t sure whether we could continue our operations or did we need to merge with another synagogue. The rabbi, along with his wife Kaila brought us from the brink of extinction to a healthy vibrant congregation in only a matter of a few years.”
“He built community in ways that are extremely rare,” Kanfer notes. “The rabbi was always available and there for people in ways that go beyond what most of us imagine.”
Rabbi Sasonkin’s openness and inclusivity spilled past the doors of his shul.
“He was a Rabbi to the community as well because he was inclusive and non-judgmental, making everyone feel welcomed,” says Stile. “This was evidence by the overflowing crowds at our Simchas Torah and Purim dinners, among other events.”
“Mendy never compromised his belief or practice,” Koch says. “But he did not expect any of us to be him, accepting each of us as individual Jewish personalities.”
About five years ago, Rabbi Sasonkin spearheaded Anshe Sfard’s $6 million expansion and renovation. He “raised all the money necessary and we now have a beautiful and well-functioning building with no mortgage or debt,” says Stile.
Stile adds: “He, along with Kaila, were the best thing that ever happened to Anshe Sfard. To say he will be missed is the understatement of all time.”
Rabbi Sasonkin's son Rabbi Moshe Sasonkin will succeed him at Anshe Sfard's pulpit.
In addition to his wife, parents and in-laws, he is survived by children Rabbi Shmuli Sasonkin (Winter Park, Fla.), Rabbi Chaim Sasonkin (Parkland, Fla.), Rabbi Moshe Sasonkin (Kent, Ohio), Mussie Klein (Memphis, Tenn.), Berele Sasonkin, Levi Sasonkin, Meir Sasonkin, Ari Sasonkin, Yossi Sasonkin and Chana Sasonkin, all of Akron; and many grandchildren.