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.’ ”
Schneier, it seems, always wanted to be a star. “My mother claims that when I was 2 years old I got up on the table and I began to preach,” he told me at Bistro Bis. “You know the story of Kol Nidre night when they couldn’t find me?” Schneier asked. “The New York Times wrote about this—I was 3 years old, or 4 years old, and at Kol Nidre I disappeared from sitting next to my mother, and no one could find me.” Schneier had been perched in the Torah ark, waiting to burst into view of the congregation as the doors were opened. The story is a popular family legend: Schneier’s father, Arthur, also recounted it in an email. “Marc’s disappearance in the Ark during one of the High Holy Day services was a hilarious moment,” the elder Schneier wrote, “but in a way prophetic of his calling.”
The rabbinate was, after all, the family business. The Schneiers are related to the Lubavitch leader Menachem Mendel Schneerson and get invitations to reunions of the extended clan in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, the movement’s epicenter. Arthur Schneier was born in Vienna in 1930 and came to the United States after World War II. He was ordained as a pulpit rabbi at the Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary—the flagship institution of Modern Orthodoxy, better known as RIETS—in 1956 and in 1962 took over the Park East Synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, where he remains today.
As a boy, Marc Schneier went to Ramaz, the Modern Orthodox day school on the Upper East Side, but left after eighth grade because he was worried he wouldn’t have the necessary training to follow his father to the seminary. “I knew at the time it would not prepare me to eventually enter Yeshiva,” Schneier told me, adding that he wrote a letter about it to the school’s head, Rabbi Haskel Lookstein. (In response to an email query, Lookstein wrote: “Sorry, I do not want to speak about Marc Schneier.”) Schneier commuted to Yeshiva University High School, in Washington Heights, and then enrolled at Yeshiva College, where he majored in philosophy and graduated cum laude; his senior year, he served as president of the student council. In 1980, Schneier enrolled at RIETS, and a few months later, just shy of his 22nd birthday, married a Barnard undergraduate named Elissa Shay at Park East in a ceremony officiated by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Goren of Israel and Chief Rabbi Moses Rosen of Romania. The marriage didn’t last. “I was young,” Schneier said, with a shrug. “We make mistakes when we’re young.” After his ordination, in 1983, Schneier joined Park East as an associate rabbi alongside his father, who was by then famous for cultivating relationships with local politicians and foreign dignitaries. “I was the heir apparent to the throne,” Marc Schneier said.
Yet in 1984 Schneier decided to abandon his fate, and he took up a career in real estate. He went to work for Harry Helmsley, the real-estate magnate and husband of Leona, handling residential loft conversions in lower Manhattan. “He came in as something like an intern,” said Kenneth Patton, a former city economic development official who was director of operations at Helmsley-Spear and is now a professor at New York University’s Schack Institute of Real Estate. “He was very bright and picked it up pretty good.” After four years, though, Schneier gave it up and returned to Park East. “To a degree I was the boy wonder of the firm,” Schneier said over dinner. “The Helmsleys had no children,” he added. But, he went on, “I always felt I was put here to do something more meaningful, you know, greater, in terms of a humanitarian, from a humanity point of view. That’s what I missed being involved in real estate.”
In 1965, the elder Schneier had established a philanthropy called the Appeal of Conscience Foundation—today an $11 million organization—that hosted dialogues among religious and political leaders separated by the Cold War. Marc Schneier started his own group, called the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, which he set up in 1989 in partnership with the theater impresario Joseph Papp, to promote racial harmony. Meantime, Papp connected Schneier with artists like the late playwright Wendy Wasserstein, who told the Forward in 1996 that she consulted with Schneier when writing The Sisters Rosensweig.
The next summer, the younger Schneier borrowed a Torah from Park East and launched his own operation in Westhampton Beach, in once genteelly anti-Semitic Eastern Long Island. With his second wife, Esther, Schneier welcomed guests to a wood-shingled rental house for Shabbat services. The minyan was quickly dubbed “the shul with the pool”—and just as quickly was threatened with a shut down, after village officials determined that the property wasn’t zoned for religious services. The fight appealed to Schneier’s sense of drama, and, with support from then-New York City Mayor David Dinkins, he successfully fought the injunction. “The irony is, if they’d said nothing, there would be nothing there today,” Schneier says today. “But instead everyone wanted to come.”
Schneier left Park East in the spring of 1993 to work full time on the Hampton Synagogue. Meanwhile, he had divorced, and that summer he married Toby Gotesman, the daughter of a prominent Orthodox family in Portland, Oregon. The new Mrs. Schneier jumped into the Hamptons project with gusto, taking on the traditional rabbi’s wife title of “rebbetzin.” The following summer, the Hampton Synagogue opened its own building just off the main drag in Westhampton Beach with help from a donor base that included Steven Spielberg, who helped dedicate the 350-seat sanctuary in August 1994. Spielberg also gave generously to Schneier’s Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. By 1998 Schneier had become president of the New York Board of Rabbis, an organization representing 800 congregations in and around the city. He told the New York Times he hoped to establish a parallel body in Israel and began laying the groundwork for a national North American Board of Rabbis. Still just shy of his 40th birthday, Schneier was already one of the leading lights of the American rabbinate, an institution-builder with the star power and public recognition he had always craved.
As his enterprises have grown, Schneier has skillfully managed to walk a tightrope between engaging with as broad a constituency as possible and staying within the boundaries of accepted practice for an Orthodox rabbi. A few years ago, Schneier tried to introduce a Shabbat bus service—the Shab-bus—that would circulate around the Hamptons, on the theory that it could be the rolling equivalent of a Shabbat elevator. “These are progressive steps,” Schneier acknowledged. “I believe that within the halachic system we can make things easier and more accessible.”
Some critics have long pegged the Hampton Synagogue—which never formally joined the Orthodox Union, though the organization includes the congregation in the local listing guide on its website—as too lenient about its standards of observance, from its stylized low metal mechitza barrier to the kinds of people who are invited to speak. “I cannot understand why a shul that calls itself Orthodox feels the need to run programs that simply counter the values and rules of Jewish law,” a rabbi named Reuven Spolter, a former executive board member of the Orthodox movement’s Rabbinical Council of America, blogged last month, referring to an upcoming evening with the journalists Steve and Cokie Roberts, who will be talking about their successful interfaith marriage. But Schneier’s defenders say he is being admirably creative. “You can’t argue with success,” said Joseph Potasnik, the executive vice-president of the New York Board of Rabbis. “What were the Hamptons before Rabbi Schneier arrived, and what is it after? You have to give credit to someone who has been able to build that.” When I remarked that most Jews outside of New York probably hadn’t heard of Schneier, Potasnik quipped, “Don’t tell him that.” Another rabbi who had been involved in one of Schneier’s interfaith projects through his foundation made a similar observation: “For him, it’s all about that picture in the New York Times, not about the work on the ground.”
Regardless, what seems obvious is that Schneier’s lifestyle depends on maintaining the attentions, and the patronage, of the very rich. The rabbi makes more than $500,000 a year: He was paid $227,596 by his foundation in 2009, the most recent year for which tax records are available, and told me he earns $300,000 a year from the synagogue, which also carries the mortgage on his house in the Hamptons. But he spends the bulk of his time with multimillionaires, which can make even well-off people feel poor. In March, after a press conference on Capitol Hill, where Schneier joined religious leaders of different faiths to protest Rep. Peter King’s controversial hearings on Muslim radicalization, I complimented Schneier on his tie, which he flipped over to reveal the Hermès label. He added that he has more than 100 others in his collection—and then later asked me, repeatedly, not to mention it, and insisted that most of the ties were gifts. “They’ll say that’s where the money went,” he said, in a voice that sounded only half-joking.
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.”
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.”
Allison Hoffman is a senior editor at Tablet Magazine. Her Twitter feed is @allisont_dc.