Rabbi Marc Schneier’s Hampton Synagogue Caters to New York’s Wealthy
As his personal life spun out of control and into the tabloids, they returned the favor by closing ranks around him
January 2009 was not a time for extravagance, and no one knew it better than New York’s wealthiest Jews. The scope of Bernie Madoff’s vast Ponzi scheme was just becoming clear, and the world’s financial markets were reeling. Wall Street bigwigs were voluntarily canceling their bonuses. Upper East Side doyennes were concealing their luxury purchases behind plain white bags. So, it raised some eyebrows when Marc Schneier, the so-called “rabbi to the stars,” publicized the 50th birthday present he’d received from his wife, Tobi: a 400-pound endangered Asian lion, resident at the Jerusalem Biblical Zoo, which was dubbed “Rabbi Marc” in exchange for an undisclosed donation to fund its care. The Schneiers—she looking svelte and blonde in a leopard-print Michael Kors sheath, he smiling in a dark suit and one of his customary Hermès ties—were pictured in press photos posed next to the cat, which clawed at the glass walls of its enclosure.
The scene came back to bite Schneier a year later when the marriage—Schneier’s fourth—disintegrated. Within months, stories appeared in the New York tabloids hinting at Schneier’s romance with a speech pathologist more than a decade his junior. The rabbi responded with a sensational disclosure of his own: He had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder. “He has been dealing with a very serious illness, and we will have no comment on rumor or innuendo,” Schneier’s friend, the public-relations powerhouse Ken Sunshine, told the New York Post. A joke began circulating about what the rabbi’s new girlfriend could get him for his next birthday: “A bipolar bear.”
Schneier, who founded the Hampton Synagogue in Long Island’s summer playground, advertises himself as an 18th-generation scion of a European rabbinic dynasty. He is also one of the few clergy who occasionally turns up in the gossip pages, more often for his secular antics than for his religious pursuits. Last August, as Schneier’s divorce battle turned ugly, the New York Daily News published grainy private-eye images of the rabbi in workout clothes canoodling with his girlfriend, Gitty Leiner, during a Passover vacation in Israel. (His divorce from Tobi is still being litigated, and in the spring, he traveled to South Florida to celebrate Passover with both Leiner and his only child, 12-year-old Brendan, from his third marriage.)
In public, Schneier’s supporters and benefactors have dismissed his travails as a private matter disconnected from his professional duties as a religious authority and communal leader. “As far as what he does in interfaith relations, the personal side does not seem to have impaired his ability to do his work,” said Michael Schneider, the secretary-general of the World Jewish Congress. “We’re not the morality police, and as far as I’m aware he has not committed any criminal act.” Schneier’s congregants have similarly closed ranks behind him. “We all know he has personal issues in his life, and he either got divorced or will be getting divorced, but that’s his personal life,” said Harvey Kaylie, a Long Island electronics manufacturer who has been among the Hampton Synagogue’s most generous donors. “The success and the feeling and the rewards people get from the synagogue—I can’t compare it to any other synagogue, so he must be doing something right.” Schneier’s friend Jay Rosenbaum, the rabbi of a Reform congregation in suburban Long Island and a former officer of the New York Board of Rabbis, introduced him at a Martin Luther King, Jr. event last winter this way: “He is an individual who does what is right. A courageous soul. A true religious personality. A leader not only of world Jewry, but truly, a world leader.”
Nevertheless, in the weeks after the photographs of Schneier and Leiner appeared, officers of the Rabbinical Council of America, the professional association of Orthodox rabbis—of which Schneier is a member—quietly asked Schneier to resign, a development reported by the Jewish Week. When Schneier declined, the group convened a formal board of inquiry to determine whether he had failed to maintain the standards of decorum expected of an Orthodox rabbi. (Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, the president of the RCA, told me that the inquiry remains open.) Around the same time, Schneier went on sabbatical from his synagogue, an off-season absence he publicly explained as a leave for a book project he is developing with the imam of Manhattan’s largest mosque. Jerry Levin, a synagogue trustee, told me, “We agreed on a sabbatical. I don’t know that we ever got into details of what it was for.” (Schneier says he has not yet signed a publishing contract for the book.)
In the past year, Schneier has been as visible as ever, jetting around the world to represent Jewish interests in a variety of forums. In October, he went to Qatar in his capacity as a vice-president of the World Jewish Congress, of which he is a former chairman, to attend an interfaith summit and used his keynote to rebuke an imam in the name of his fellow Jews. “For millennia we have prayed toward Jerusalem,” the rabbi said. “It is therefore an insult to all of us to accuse us of illegally occupying the city.” The next month, he was in London speaking at the House of Lords. More recently, he’s met with Donald Trump about the developer’s abortive presidential campaign, and been consulted by the Los Angeles Times on the Jewish reaction to President Barack Obama’s Middle East peace plan. Virtually the only real price Schneier has paid for his indiscretion has been his conspicuous absence from Newsweek’s annual ranking of the 50 most influential rabbis in America, after he made the list in 2009 and 2010. In an interview, Schneier said that he had been ineligible for this year’s edition because of his pulpit leave of absence. (In response to a query from Tablet, Newsweek said that was not the case. “No rabbis under consideration were disqualified because of sabbatical status,” said Abigail Pogrebin, who helped compile this year’s list.)
Schneier has now returned to the pulpit in Westhampton Beach he has occupied for 21 years. Last week, more than a hundred congregants, many of them elderly, turned out, at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday night, to celebrate Shavuot. The rabbi, who wore a beige blazer and an open-collared shirt, led a lively debate about the specifically Jewish view of the biblical Ten Commandments. The synagogue’s full calendar for the summer season, featuring a performance by the Broadway star Tovah Feldshuh and an evening with political commentator Peter Beinart, testifies to the rabbi’s undiminished clout—and to the willingness of his colleagues and his wealthy backers to let him remain in place as one of the most prominent spokespeople for American Jewry.
At 52, Schneier cultivates a manicured presence. He wears eyeglasses from the high-end French brand Fred—which he usually takes off before speaking in public, because, he told me, he thinks he looks at least five years younger without them—and favors French-cuffed shirts accented with Hermès ties. He has a round face framed by receding curls, which on his stocky frame lends him more than a passing resemblance to Bert Lahr. Since his diagnosis as bipolar last year, Schneier says, he has become a “treadmill freak.” “I’ve lost 25 pounds since June,” he told me in March as we walked to a Washington hotspot called Bistro Bis, where we sat down for an extended interview over dinner. After being told that his favorite meal—tuna tartare—was unavailable on the dinner menu, Schneier ordered a beet salad and a mushroom risotto, which in deference to kashrut he asked to have prepared with a vegan base.
Even after going through the tabloid wringer, Schneier still prides himself on the attention he gets from the press. When I asked him about an old clip about a Passover Seder he celebrated in 1993 with Raul Julia, Schneier immediately nodded, saying, “Yeah, on ‘Page Six.’ ” When I said the item I’d seen had come from the Jewish Forward, he shook his head. “Also on ‘Page Six,’ ” he insisted, referring to the New York Post’s legendary gossip roundup. “No, no, it was ‘Page Six.’ ”
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