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
Schneier is a hard worker. He travels frequently, bouncing from New York to Paris to Washington, and while people joke about his penchant for taking Town Cars instead of the subway, Schneier also understands the importance of showing up to the occasional non-glamorous event. One chilly weeknight in early March, I found him standing alone in the dim entry of the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on East 96th Street, looking for a room where about 50 young community activists were meeting to discuss how to connect Muslim and Jewish New Yorkers. One of Schneier’s foundation staffers moderated the event, and, for two hours, the rabbi sat and listened, hardly speaking at all. At the end, he stood by the refreshment table, considering the cookie selection.
But he is also, without question, a talented showman. At his Shavuot service, he went out of his way to draw analogies between ancient Babylon and modern Scarsdale, to illustrate the relationships between different Jewish communities of the ancient world, and when he talked about the brilliant marketing strategy of early Christians who cut the 613 Jewish mitzvot down to the better-known Ten Commandments, Schneier joked, “They didn’t need Howard Rubenstein”—a reference to the legendary New York publicist that drew snickers. Schneier also has the politician’s gift of instant recall for small personal details. From behind his lectern, designed to look like a leaning dune fence, he called on congregants by name and turned the discussion into a kind of game, awarding shout-outs to those who participated. “Yeshiva of Flatbush gets the point,” he exclaimed when one woman produced the correct answer to one conundrum from the recesses of her memory. He does the same for near-strangers: In our many conversations, he found ways to make references to West Los Angeles, where I once mentioned I’d grown up, as a means of building instant familiarity.
Schneier will happily recount, at length, how he chased Steven Spielberg to help him launch the Hampton Synagogue, in 1994, a story that began with Schneier asking Edgar Bronfman, then still actively involved in running the Seagram Company, to put him into position to corner Spielberg at a dinner Bronfman was throwing in the director’s honor. (It was the year that Spielberg won the best director Oscar for Schindler’s List.) “I needed some pizzazz, I needed some gravitas,” Schneier told me at our dinner. “This man was the most famous man on earth at the time,” Schneier went on. “If you’d asked me to choose between Spielberg and Clinton that year, I’d pick Spielberg. He’s Jewish. He’s in the Hamptons. There’s no stretch here.” The story of the dedication, which he has clearly told many times, wound through a cliffhanger in which a freak thunderstorm grounded Spielberg’s helicopter, and ended with the director showing up in a beat-up Volvo at the dedication of the sanctuary—the entrance of which is today, more than 15 years later, still decorated with a cylinder that visitors can spin to see various black-and-white images of Spielberg standing with Schneier and the synagogue trustees.
In the late 1990s, Schneier attempted to build a southern franchise of his Hampton Synagogue in Palm Beach, at the behest of Danny Abraham, the billionaire founder of the Slim-Fast weight-loss empire, who also happened to be related to Toby Gotesman Schneier’s father. South Florida was a winter destination for many of Schneier’s summer clientele, and it seemed like a good place to replicate the breezy Hamptons vibe: an authentic-enough Orthodox synagogue catering to wealthy Jews for whom religious observance was a nice leisure pursuit. The plan foundered under heavy opposition from the city’s established Orthodox congregations, though Abraham did eventually open his synagogue in 2002 as the New Synagogue of Palm Beach.
Within a few years, Schneier’s private life began showing signs of strain. In 2005, Toby Gotesman Schneier filed for divorce, amid rumors that she had been having an affair with the Hampton Synagogue’s cantor, Israel Rand, who left that year to become cantor at the synagogue in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan. One person with knowledge of the situation claimed the alleged affair was a factor in the disintegration of the Schneiers’ marriage. Reached by phone in Israel, Rand, who had been going through his own divorce at the time, flatly denied the affair ever happened: “Hundred percent not true.” Marc Schneier declined to discuss the matter. But what is clear is that he later found solace with another woman, who happened to have the same name as his ex-wife: Tobi Rubinstein, a fashion designer who was herself divorced from a prominent congregant at Park East in Manhattan.
Despite the divorce, Schneier has preserved his ties with his ex-wife’s cousin Danny Abraham. Last September, when Abraham decided to host a private dinner at the Plaza Hotel for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Schneier made it on the guest list, due to his efforts over the past five years to establish links between Jewish and Muslim clergy in the United States and Europe. The participants—including former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and Sandy Berger, the former national security adviser—were asked to limit themselves to brief questions for Abbas, but Schneier took advantage of the opportunity to preach a sermon about anti-Semitism in Europe. “The Jewish community has been in the forefront in the United States, in Europe, in combating Islamophobia,” Schneier said, according to a transcript of the event. “I ask that in your leadership capacity, when you visit these countries, that you speak out against anti-Semitism so that you will join other leaders in the Muslim world that are fighting for the rights of Jews as well.”
Schneier’s work on Muslim-Jewish relations, conducted under the auspices of both his Foundation for Ethnic Understanding and the World Jewish Congress, is an outgrowth of the black-Jewish relations he started with Papp in the late 1980s. (Papp, who died in 1991, remained listed on the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding’s tax filings as a board member until 1999.) Russell Simmons joined the board in 2001, as secretary, after selling his remaining stake in Def Jam Records for a reported $100 million. “I thought it would be good to work with the rabbi,” Simmons told me, in a phone interview. That same year, Simmons organized a secret meeting at his Tribeca penthouse between Nation of Islam founder Louis Farrakhan and a handful of boldface names who were looking to recreate the 1960s-era alliance between blacks and Jews: Cornel West, Martin Luther King III, and Schneier, who had published a book with King in 1999 about the relationship between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Jewish community. Schneier was, at the time, the only high-profile Jew willing to meet Farrakhan, though at the height of the 2000 presidential campaign Sen. Joe Lieberman offered to do the same—provoking a stream of criticism from the Anti-Defamation League and others. Someone tipped off a reporter from Newsweek, who hung around outside. “No one came but Marc,” Simmons told me. “And Marc caught hell.”
Schneier continues to ally himself with the black community—he was on the invitation list for Obama’s inauguration in 2009, and last January, he was the lone Jewish representative onstage at a lunch event in Manhattan for Rev. Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow/PUSH Coalition—but, beginning about five years ago, he began to redirect his energy toward building ties with the Muslim community. Both he and Simmons, an ardent opponent of the Iraq war, saw an opportunity. “I think that in this country, if the amount of Islamophobia keeps expanding, it could be cause to allow war machine lobbyists and other lobbyists to push politicians to go into some war that does no one any good,” Simmons explained to me. Schneier also saw something else: another franchise opportunity. “The big issue for Muslim and Jewish leaders is to create an alliance,” the rabbi told me. “There is talk of fighting right-wing extremism. I have other ideas. It’s pure. It’s real.” He talked about a pair of summits on Muslim-Jewish cooperation he hosted for European imams and rabbis, first in December in Brussels and again in early March in Paris. This project, which began with a trip to Ellis Island Schneier hosted for European imams and rabbis in 2009, has come with the addition of a new member to Schneier’s board: the Kazakh-born Israeli billionaire Alexander Machkevitch, who remains mostly unknown in the United States, though he has been a member of the World Jewish Congress steering committee since 2004. In Europe, Machkevitch is known for his plans to build a pro-Israel news network to compete with Al Jazeera. And Schneier says he has designs on another part of the world. “This summer,” he told me, “our next conquest is Latin America.”
As the oil-poor Arab states of Egypt, Tunisia, Syria, and Yemen face food and fuel shortages in the aftermath of upheaval there, Israel stands to emerge with an even stronger position in the region