He was to be, in his words, the “heir to the throne” as spiritual leader of the Park East Synagogue after his father’s retirement. But when forced by the congregation’s board in the spring of 1993 to choose between tony Park East and his quixotic notion of starting a congregation where none had existed before — Westhampton Beach, L.I. — Rabbi Marc Schneier chose the challenge of the unknown.
“It was a very difficult choice because [Park East] was not like a regular congregation, it was my family — where I grew up and where I was supposed to spend the rest of my life,” he says.
“Most people thought the idea of building a synagogue [in Westhampton Beach] was a pipe dream. The whole Jewish community thought I had flipped. A lot of people felt betrayed. For a year I was a pariah. My mother said go for it; my father was concerned.”
For Rabbi Arthur Schneier, the idea of his son following in his footsteps was his “hope and dream” — as it is for many fathers.
“There are not too many rabbi’s sons who follow their father in the rabbinate,” he says.But Rabbi Marc Schneier’s temperament is not to take the easy way out. Weeks after that fateful board meeting, he was presiding over the groundbreaking of The Hampton Synagogue — and announcing the dedication date.
“We didn’t even have a bulldozer there yet,” he recalls, “but that is my personality.”
His mother, Donna Schneier Goldberg, says she favored her son’s move because “Arthur wasn’t ready to retire and Marc needed a platform to grow. It was a natural evolution. … No break of a father and a child is easy.”
It is that drive that Rabbi Marc Schneier, 39, brings to the New York Board of Rabbis, to which he will be formally installed as president Monday evening.
The group’s executive vice president, Rabbi Gilbert Rosenthal, says he witnessed that activism minutes after Rabbi Schneier was elected president last month when he left the meeting with a dozen other members and flew to Israel. The next day they were in Jerusalem, and Rabbi Schneier was proposing the creation of an interdenominational rabbinic group in Israel to promote pluralism there.
“That’s his style,” Rabbi Rosenthal says. “He’s a tremendous activist, constantly on the move. I find him to be one of the most stimulating, exciting and challenging colleagues.”
Rabbi Schneier has received high marks also for his work as a founder in 1989 of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, an organization devoted to fostering black-Jewish relations. And in the last four years he has served as chair of the World Jewish Congress’ Commission on Intergroup Relations, bringing to that organization such prominent black leaders as Coretta Scott King, Myrlie Evers-Williams of the NAACP and Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr.
The president of the National Urban League, Hugh Price, praises the rabbi as a “very imaginative, dedicated leader who is very committed to the whole area of black-Jewish relations and intergroup relations. … He’s a terrific partner.”
But critics have said the rosy picture the foundation paints of black-Jewish relations does not reflect the following of black anti-Semites like Louis Farrakhan and Leonard Jeffries. They cite also the outpouring of black hatred in Harlem two years ago that led to the burning of a Jewish-owned store, the racially charged comments of the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Crown Heights riots.Rabbi Marc Schneier insists, however, that the “Jewish community today enjoys a friendship” with leaders of the black community unparalleled since the heyday of the civil rights movement in the 1960s.
The president of the New York Urban League, Dennis Walcott, attributes black anti-Semitic incidents to “people on the extremes.” And the rioting in Crown Heights occurred, he says, because the chasidim and Caribbean-American communities there had not been engaged in dialogue. They are now.
Rabbi Jay Rosenbaum, treasurer of the New York Board of Rabbis, says he has found that Rabbi Schneier’s coalition building has strengthened the Jewishcommunity.
“He was the one who came forward before anyone else and worked with the New York Board of Rabbis to provide funds to help rebuild the black churches that were burned two years ago,” he says. Rabbi Rosenbaum adds that the rabbi did the same when arson fires damaged Conservative and Reform synagogues in Israel last year.
“He is a progressive voice in Orthodoxy,” says the American Jewish Committee’s national director of Jewish communal affairs, Steven Bayme. “In the Orthodox world, where there has been such a turning inward in recent years, he is a refreshing voice — a voice of participation and engagement that needs to be heard at a time when the anti-Orthodox backlash is so great.”
The high profile Rabbi Marc Schneier maintains has caused some to be critical.
“He’s constantly self-promoting,” says one observer who asked not to be identified. “You expect more humility from rabbis.”
There has been similar criticism of his father, but the executive director of the World Jewish Congress, Elan Steinberg, dismisses it. “Of course they have their critics,” he says, “but both have individually accomplished more than many national Jewish organizations.”
Rabbi Schneier says his activism has nothing to do with “ego or publicity. If I was doing it for publicity, I’d do a lot more things and in a more reckless fashion.
“If you do good things, people will recognize it. I don’t force anybody to write about me.”
His father also shrugs off the criticism, saying, “You’re dealing with a father-son team who are activists. … If you are committed and willing to make a difference, you can’t just fabricate stories.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier’s wife, Toby, chalks up the criticism to “jealousy.”
“He does only good things, and by and large people think he is doing great things,” she says.
For Rabbi Schneier, developing an Orthodox congregation in Westhampton Beach, a community in which the public schools were open on the High Holy Days and Christmas trees and pork dinners are not uncommon at Jewish homes, was no easy feat.
“It was a very difficult time, a very lonely time,” he recalls. “My future had been secured for the rest of my life, but you have to follow your heart and I saw an incredible opportunity to make a most significant impact on the Jewish community.”
Since its dedication in 1994, the Hampton Synagogue’s membership has grown to 1,000 families.
“We couldn’t have done it without his energy,” says Michael Weisbrod, who enticed Rabbi Schneier into moving there. “Usually when you get out from under your father you flourish, especially if you are anything like your father.”
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, 68, is a Holocaust survivor who came to the United States after World War II. He moved to the Park East Synagogue in 1962.
“We had 80 families,” he says. “My children were the only children in the entire congregation, whose average age was above 60. I made up my mind I was not going to preside over an old-age home, that I was going to build a day school and a cultural center.”
The congregation today has the Minskoff Cultural Center, nearly 1,000 families and a 300-pupil day school named for Rabbi Arthur Schneier.
In addition to expanding the synagogue, Rabbi Arthur Schneier also began a life as an activist in 1965 when he organized the first demonstration for Soviet Jewry at his synagogue, which was just across the street from the Soviet Mission to the United Nations.
“The establishment in those days did not believe in demonstrations and said we were wasting our time,” he recalls. “I took out a full- page ad in The New York Times calling the demonstration an appeal of conscience in behalf of Soviet Jewry. It was signed by prominent Catholic, Protestant and Jewish leaders.”
That action provided the impetus for Rabbi Arthur Schneier to launch later that year the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which is composed of 32 corporate trustees who are leaders of different religious denominations. Originally created to support Soviet Jews, it was later expanded to deal with religious freedom for all religious denominations.
In his role as founder of the foundation, Rabbi Arthur Schneier served as a presidential emissary with two other clergy this month on a trip to China and Tibet to explore the issue of religious freedom there.Rabbi Arthur Schneier also served as an alternate U.S. representative to the United Nations during the Reagan administration, chaired the U.S. section of the World Jewish Congress, served as president of the Religious Zionists of America and chairman of the U.S. Commission for the Preservation of America’s Heritage Abroad.
“He’s a giant of a man who has done an enormous amount on Soviet Jewry and human rights,” says the AJCommittee’s Bayme. “He’s a true statesman in the Jewish community, and Marc is a worthy heir to that mantle.”Rabbi Arthur Schneier likes to compare himself and his son to Joshua and Caleb, the only two among the dozen biblical spies to return with positive reports of the Promised Land.
“Marc is a dreamer and a doer,” his father says. “He focuses on something and gives his heart and soul.”
Rabbi Marc Schneier’s mother notes that her son was president of the student council at Yeshiva University, from which he was ordained.
“He was always a Pied Piper kind of person,” she says. “He and his dad are both extraordinarily gifted as leaders.”