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
Over the years, the rabbi has managed to alienate some of his donors, who in general have proved remarkably loyal. When he began planning for the Hampton Synagogue’s building, one of the people who offered to help was Henry Kibel, a Manhattan developer, who put down the deposit on the synagogue’s lot. Kibel’s nephew, Peter Levenson, an architect who is a principal in the family firm, provided me with architectural drawings and photographs of models the Kibel Company developed pro bono for the synagogue. Months into the work, Levenson claims, Schneier told him a local builder had promised to donate $100,000 to the synagogue if he was selected as general contractor for the project. “We said to Marc, this is a conflict of interest,” Levenson said in a recent telephone interview. In short order, Levenson said, another architect was brought in to file the plans. “The abandoning of our association happened quickly.” Later, in an email, he wrote, “I thought the reward would have been a building, a tradition, and a person I could look up to and be proud of. It turned into an experience that I am now happy to forget.” (“Institutions change architects, and that’s what we did, plain and simple,” Schneier told me. “That’s my response.” As for the $100,000 contribution, he said: “Of course, builders do it all the time.”)
Schneier has also made some aggressive enemies. In late May, I received an unsolicited telephone call from a man who identified himself as Uri Akler. He said he was a friend of Tobi Rubinstein-Schneier and wanted to tell me about an incident in which, he claimed, Rabbi Schneier had shorted him payment for work he had done at the synagogue to help with a fundraising campaign. (Rubinstein-Schneier declined to be interviewed for this article.) In our first conversation, Akler said he had been responsible for commissioning the private eye who took the grainy photographs of the rabbi with his girlfriend in Israel last year. Akler claimed he had invested $10,000 in the effort and said he had hundreds more pictures, as well as video “that would make a porno producer blush.” When I asked Schneier about it, he exploded, accusing Akler of being responsible for spreading libelous allegations against him in last summer’s tabloid wars. “He is not a credible source,” Schneier said. “He needed a job, we needed someone to make calls for the annual gift campaign, he made a few calls and did not do a good job and the rest is history.”
Last December, the rabbi’s third wife, Toby Gotesman Schneier, self-published a diary-style book, Bad Charisma, which she cast as a “fictional memoir.” The book, illustrated with her own colorful paintings, described the marriage between her alter ego “Missy Gold Minefeld” and a rabbi, “Bart.” “We were freakin’ famous,” Missy writes. “We dined with the Clintons and talk show hosts and sex experts and kings and Martin Luther King!” A few pages later, there is a photograph of Gotesman Schneier standing with Bill Clinton. The book goes on to detail Missy’s affair with a married tenor referred to as “the Congregant” and another with a man called “Jack,” whose endowments are compared to “a Hebrew National salami.” Gotesman Schneier has continued her reflections in the first person, both in a blog hosted by the Jerusalem Post and on her own site, I Am Goddess XRebbetzin. Schneier’s critics seized on this latest embarrassment: On Christmas Eve, the Daily News published an item noting that Schneier’s congregants were eagerly parsing Bad Charisma for snippets of gossip.
And yet the donor list for this summer’s Hampton Synagogue season remains nearly unchanged from last year’s. “The fact of the matter is, they don’t want to go to any other synagogue,” one person, who has occasionally attended over the years, told me. At this point, it is hard to imagine what kind of scandal would induce the rabbi’s wealthy backers to withdraw their support from a man who seems, to the casual onlooker, like an odd fit as a communal role model and the leader of a religious institution. “He’s an extraordinary person, and it’s a powerful synagogue,” said Ken Sunshine, the PR man, a Hamptons congregant and a board member of Schneier’s foundation. “He’s got an extraordinary Rolodex and he uses it to further the ends of the organization.” Schneier’s congregants say they love him. “Every year it seems he knows how to up the ante, in terms of offering more to people who attend,” said Harvey Kaylie, who underwrote the building that houses the synagogue’s social hall and offices. Even today, some unhesitatingly compare him to the leading lights of modern Jewry. “A lot of folks have gotten involved because they are following his lead, in the way I suspect a lot of Heschel’s congregants followed his lead on civil rights,” explained Joel Cohen, a white-collar defense lawyer in Manhattan who described himself as “an unofficial consigliere” for the rabbi.
The rabbi’s critics in the organized Jewish world—some of whom depend on Schneier’s close associates for their own funding—refuse to come out publicly against him. “One of the things I’ve learned is that even when people deserve to have their bridges burned, I don’t do it,” said one head of a large organization in New York, in declining to speak to me about Schneier. And it’s difficult to find anyone who hasn’t at some point enjoyed the largesse of the Hampton Synagogue. “The issue is one of whether harm is being done,” said the head of another New York Jewish organization, who has been an invited guest in summers past. “If that were happening, people would speak out.” Yet the fact remains that when Schneier speaks in public, he is often the only identifiably Jewish person in the room—and, as a result, is widely seen as a de facto spokesman for American Jews at large. Schneier himself is careful to dance around the issue. “I have been humbled along the way,” he told me in March. “You will never hear me say ‘on behalf of the Jewish community.’ ” But later, in a phone conversation, he mentioned proudly a Forward column from 1999 in which he was described as the man “most likely to become chief rabbi of America.”
It is a testament to Schneier’s boundless optimism, as well as his ambition, that he seems to see the events of the past year—which he sometimes delicately refers to as his “situation”—not as a consequence of his own questionable personal decisions but rather as a Job-like test that he has somehow passed. When I asked about his bipolar disorder, Schneier responded by talking about the changes it has wrought in him rather than the impact it may have had on his pastoral or business commitments to congregants and associates alike. “It’s not that Marc Schneier is back to where he was,” he said in March, slipping into the third person. “Marc Schneier has never been in this place before.”
At the end of our dinner, Schneier turned to me and said, “I have a question: Why me?” It cast my mind back to a moment earlier in the evening, when we were talking about his relationship with his son. “I care about his self-esteem, his self-worth,” Schneier had said, and mentioned a children’s book they used to read together, the key line of which he recalled as, “Do you love yourself?” “I remember,” Schneier told me, “at the end of the book, he says, ‘Daddy, I love myself. Do you love yourself?’ ” Schneier hadn’t answered the question earlier, but now, as we got up from the table, he did. “I don’t want anything setting me back,” he told me, referring to his medical treatment. “It’s a very serious illness. But you get it under control, and you have a successful treatment, and there’s just no stopping you.”
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