Navigate to News section

The Shake-Up at Park East Synagogue

A popular assistant rabbi is summarily fired. Congregants are left wondering why.

Armin Rosen
October 26, 2021
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The Lion King, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Park East Synagogue, 2017Drew Angerer/Getty Images
Drew Angerer/Getty Images
The Lion King, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, Park East Synagogue, 2017Drew Angerer/Getty Images

There is almost no synagogue in the modern Orthodox world as wealthy and as important as Park East, on Manhattan’s Upper East Side. And there is probably no Manhattan pulpit rabbi as famous or as respected as Arthur Schneier, a 91-year-old Holocaust survivor and self-made Jewish communal emissary to world leaders and diplomats. So when Rabbi Schneier summarily fires a popular assistant rabbi after 10 years of service, it’s a major event in the life of a leading American Jewish institution.

There’s little that’s more painful or divisive for any synagogue than the dismissal of a rabbi, especially when it happens without any warning. In this case, all it took was a 45-second phone call.

Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt received the call the morning of Oct. 15, a Friday. Rabbi Schneier launched into what sounded like a prepared statement, informing Goldschmidt that he had been terminated and wishing him a Shabbat Shalom. Goldschmidt asked for an explanation as the line went dead. The 34-year-old assistant rabbi attended services at Park East the next day, where he was approached by security but allowed to stay until the end of davening. The next day, Goldschmidt found he was locked out of the building and his office. His Park East email address was deactivated, too.

He must have been startled, though maybe not completely surprised by the turn of events. Earlier this month, Goldschmidt had been informed that he would no longer be leading the NextGen minyan, a Shabbat morning prayer group for younger members and their families which he had founded. “It was a privilege of a lifetime to start this minyan with you this past summer during these difficult times,” Goldschmidt wrote in an email informing minyan participants of the move on Oct. 6.

“He had 11 people at the minyan that failed,” claimed Hank Sheinkopf, a political consultant and ordained rabbi who assisted in campaigns for Bill Clinton and Michael Bloomberg and who identified himself as spokesperson for Schneier and his son, the Hamptons-based Rabbi Marc Schneier. Goldschmidt, Sheinkopf argued, had been reassigned because NextGen hadn’t been a success.

But regular minyan attendees disputed this characterization in interviews, saying that the usual attendance at the minyan, which was held on a third-floor classroom and was capacity-limited due to COVID concerns, hovered between 20 and 40. Goldschmidt’s removal was met with shock among the minyan’s regulars, who appreciated the younger crowd and the faster davening than in the main sanctuary, where announcements from synagogue President Herman Hochberg, himself in his early 90s, regularly dragged on for 20 minutes or more. “The NextGen events and minyan is the foundation upon which the future of the Shul will be built, and it is your vision and must be yours to lead,” one participant wrote to Goldschmidt in a minyanwide email thread on Oct. 6, decrying the decision to replace Goldschmidt as the service’s leader.

There were other signs of tension between Schneier and Goldschmidt, reaching even further back. Starting at least six months ago, Schneier prohibited Avital Chizik, Goldschmidt’s wife (and a journalist who has written for Tablet, among other places), from leading or even appearing in events at the synagogue. A small Torah study class for women that she led at her apartment had been discontinued on Schneier’s orders in 2019, around the same time she was honored at a Park East Sisterhood luncheon. A few weeks before his firing, Goldschmidt’s chair in the main sanctuary’s bimah had been downgraded from a large thronelike seat to something conspicuously more humble.

What seemed to have precipitated his firing, though, were a rapid-fire series of events that occurred immediately after he was reassigned from the NextGen minyan. In the days after the announcement, a small group of concerned regulars at the minyan approached Goldschmidt about a new initiative: a committee that would explore “the future of Park East Synagogue.” Goldschmidt provided them with a contact list of synagogue members. On Oct. 8, an email went out to the synagogue’s membership, addressed to “fellow Park East synagogue members.” “Under Rabbi Arthur Schneier’s leadership for nearly 60 years, the synagogue has thrived,” the email began, calling Schneier “not only our voice but a voice for the Jewish people, to world leaders and dignitaries. Every day we are inspired by his story, his survival, his commitment and the spirit that he brings to daily Jewish life.”

But, the letter continues, “we are concerned about the state of our beloved synagogue and what the future holds. Our overall synagogue attendance has declined; while Shabbat services used to bring in several hundred worshippers, now they bring in far smaller numbers, with few younger individuals and families.” The message announced a concrete course of action, which could reasonably be seen as undermining Schneier’s ironclad leadership of the shul. “As members of this cherished community, we have decided to form a committee to work with Rabbi Schneier and Rabbi Goldschmidt, the President, and the Board of Trustees in order to think creatively, and urgently, about how we can help as members to revitalize the synagogue and build a sustainable future.”

Brad Colman and Brian Kaufman, both NextGen attendees, were identified as co-chairs of this new committee. According to three sources, Hochberg was told of the effort by phone by one of the organizers and gave his verbal approval. If this is true, it’s still hard to know if the synagogue president was fully aware of what he was approving of. Rabbi Schneier, whose leadership of Park East is so granular that he personally approves the text and design of the synagogue’s weekly announcement flyer, was clearly blindsided by the “Future” email. A week later he fired Rabbi Goldschmidt.

Rabbi Schneier announced the shake-up in an email sent to all congregants on Oct. 18. It began, “My Dear Park East Synagogue Community.” The “Future” email and a second related note “were not authorized by me, the signatories do not represent the leadership of our Shul and school, and we are concerned about how your personal information was used to send them without my permission or that of the Board.” Then, after four paragraphs largely dedicated to reviewing his own contributions to the synagogue—“When I became the Rabbi of our beloved congregation, there was a single building and approximately forty members,” he writes—Schneier announced that “Assistant Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt is no longer employed by our Synagogue.”

A fuller accounting came in a subsequent email from Hochberg, the shul president, a few days after the Jewish Telegraphic Agency broke the news of Goldschmidt’s firing and shortly after the synagogue retained the services of Downfield Strategies, a firm specializing in crisis PR. “On Sunday October 10th, a meeting was held in the Synagogue with Assistant Rabbi Goldschmidt, Rabbi Arthur Schneier, myself and a respected leader of the congregation,” Hochberg wrote. “At this meeting, Assistant Rabbi Goldschmidt unequivocally admitted to taking and disseminating the full, non-public contact list of all synagogue members as well as parents of the Day School to two individuals that he has aligned himself with. Assistant Rabbi Goldschmidt did this without first discussing it with and getting the approval from Rabbi Schneier or myself ... After his admission, Assistant Rabbi Goldschmidt refused to apologize for his rogue actions. In fact, he further enflamed the concerns of Rabbi Schneier and myself by additionally stating that he would continue to use and disseminate the list at his discretion.”

The letter, which reminded everyone that Schneier was a “Holocaust survivor and beacon for humanity,” named Brad Colman and Brian Kaufman as Goldschmidt’s co-conspirators, describing them as “neither trustees, nor actively involved in the Synagogue or the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School.” (Tablet was unable to reach either of them.)

When I reached Hochberg by phone on Thursday, I asked the synagogue president if the board had been consulted before the firing. “Of course the board was consulted, we run a  very legitimate organization,” said Hochberg. That’s all he would share: “I have legal counsel. If you want you can speak to them. I am not going to answer any questions.” One lingering mystery is whether Schneier consulted a lawyer before firing Goldschmidt, a question that both Sheinkopf and the synagogue’s PR adviser would not definitively answer, on-the-record or off.

Had Goldschmidt been a knowing actor in a plot to undermine a beloved rabbi who he one day hoped to replace? Did an aging Schneier come to convince himself that he was threatened by a charismatic young challenger to his authority? Or perhaps the two rabbis both miscalculated.

“They are trying to tarnish the Goldschmidt camp as being against Rabbi Schneier and of course that’s just a cover. They don’t want to face the real issue which is that the congregants need to be a part of the running of the synagogue” says a Goldschmidt supporter. “I think Rabbi Goldschdmit got very insecure that he wasn’t going to get the main job and he got impatient,” counters a congregant more sympathetic to Schneier.

“Rabbi Schneier’s 92 years old. He doesn’t need to feel threatened by anyone. The man’s an institution,” says Jonathan Medows, a congregant who is himself an ordained rabbi. “It’s his shul. He’s been there for 60-plus years. You and I should be working like he is in his 90s.” Medows says he has sympathy for both sides, and like everyone I spoke to on all sides of this story, he finds the situation genuinely painful.

“These are not bad people,” stressed another source with knowledge of synagogue affairs, who  also expressed deep sympathy for both men. In contrast, other sources on both sides of the controversy were not shy about making vaguely substantiated accusations of the other side’s self-interested motives, financial and otherwise.

“Fundamentally here it’s just a misunderstanding and perhaps a degree of delusion on the part of Rabbi Goldschmidt, who everyone loves,” says one longtime friend of Schneier’s and a synagogue member. “He’s done his job well, he’s done it better than anybody.” But Goldschmidt got roped into a revolt that was doomed from the start, the source said. “A bunch of young people attempted to bully Rabbi Schneier: We’re going to decide the future of the synagogue you spent your life building.”

Community members and other informed observers still tended to have a clear idea of who they thought deserved the balance of blame. ”Rabbi Goldschmidt is a star-quality rabbi who has ably assisted Rabbi Schneier for a decade and has done an outstanding job as Park East’s assistant rabbi. To oust him in this shameful way is utterly incomprehensible and beggars belief,” the Beverly Hills-based rabbi and author Pini Dunner wrote via WhatsApp. “He should be reinstated immediately, and any differences ironed out in a gentlemanly fashion, rather than the full glare of publicity, which will do nothing but destroy all the good work of Rabbi Schneier over the past many decades.”

Sheinkopf, meanwhile, accused the young rabbi of “helping organize what was basically a mutiny against a man who he should have been much more careful about doing that against.” Goldschmidt “created the insurrection and now he’s trying to continue it for his own purposes.”

Park East is one of the highest-profile Orthodox shuls in America—Henry Kissinger drops in on Yom Kippur; Ron Lauder, Jack Lew, and Stanley Fisher have been spotted in its pews. “I do very well in my business and I’m in the back row,” one congregant said. The prominence owes in some large part to Rabbi Schneier, who turned his synagogue into a stop-off for world leaders during the opening of the U.N. General Assembly, and made Park East into the Jewish address in Manhattan for popes, presidents, mayors, and police commissioners. There are portraits of Schneier at both of the building’s main entrances. When he turned 90, a wall-size star chart in the synagogue’s lobby depicted “the sky over Vienna, Austria on March 29th, 1930, the day Rabbi Arthur Schneier was born.” The Park East day school is officially called the Arthur Schneier Park East Day School—Schneier still serves as dean.

Goldschmidt arrived at Park East 10 years ago. Supporters of Rabbi Schneier stress that Goldschmidt, despite being personable and energetic and learned in Torah, does not have a college degree: “He doesn’t even have a B.A.,” says Sheinkopf. Then, taking it for granted that Goldschmidt had designs on Schneier’s job, Sheinkopf adds, “He has no experience running a large institution.” This is true—Goldschmidt received his education from the Chevron Yeshiva, an elite Haredi institution in Jerusalem, and at the Beth Medrash Govoa in Lakewood, New Jersey, the largest and perhaps most prominent yeshiva in the U.S. His father, Pinchas Goldschmidt, is one of the leaders of the Orthodox community in Russia, although a dispute with Vladimir Putin and Chief Rabbi Berel Lazar forced him to temporarily leave the country in 2005. Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt’s title is still officially the chief rabbi of Moscow, where he is a rabbi at the Moscow Choral Synagogue. (He is also president of the Conference of European Rabbis.)

Benjamin Goldschmidt’s hiring was a test of whether an especially dynamic and worldly young rabbi from the yeshiva world could fit in with a modern Orthodox shul, one located in the center of American money and power, and led by a living legend in his early 80s.

Goldschmidt bears little of the outward trappings of his Haredi background. Despite spending formative years of his life in Russia and Israel among Russian, Yiddish, and Hebrew speakers he has no discernible accent, and his relatively restrained facial hair, formal fashion sense, and American mannerisms would make him out of place in Mea Shearim. His tenure at Park East  seemed like a success. Goldschmidt started a Russian-language Hebrew-school program, catering to families from the former Soviet Union. He established the NextGen minyan in the spring of this year with the goal of engaging the synagogue’s younger membership.

Younger members could feel alienated by Schneier’s control over so much of synagogue life, although several older members I spoke to also seemed uncomfortable with the rabbi’s pervasive powers and responsibilities. Schneier has sole discretion over appointing board members. The shul’s spending is handled by a small finance committee appointed by the board. The synagogue publishes no annual report on its finances that is available to members—some of the 15 board members have only been able to obtain the financials by asking for them, though not all of them have asked. One of the synagogue’s cantors, Benny Rogosnitzky, serves as director of both the synagogue and the day school, an unusual arrangement at any shul. “No one knows anything about him,” says one highly involved synagogue member.

As one congregant put it, “We don’t have congregation meetings, we don’t vote on the Board of Trustees, we don’t vote on president, we don’t vote on officers, it’s totally run by Rabbi Schneier.” Rabbi Schneier also heads a foundation, led in part by his daughter, with $14.6 million on hand that’s separate from the shul.

The “Future” email was sent in response to some of these concerns, which became more urgent for some members after Goldschmidt was abruptly pulled from the NextGen minyan. “They have to elect the board and that’s really what the email was about,” one member explained. Goldschmidt believed that he had the legal right to give the organizers the congregational contact list—by one interpretation of New York’s religious incorporation laws, any member of a house of worship can ask for and make copies of a membership directory at any time. Goldschmidt might have broken no legally enforceable rule. Still, “the board felt attacked,” as one source with knowledge of synagogue affairs put it, and Goldschmidt’s actions threatened to escalate his existing tensions with Schneier beyond their breaking point. Goldschmidt’s role in the “Future” email also played into a perception that he believed he could eventually replace Schneier.

For some congregants, it’s hardly relevant whether Goldschmidt wandered blindly into his firing or actively invited a blowup with Schneier, because any dispute they had was a symptom of deeper institutional rot. “The board and Rabbi Schneier caused this split. Rabbi Goldschmidt didn’t. They did it by running the place so badly,” one member explained.

The board and Rabbi Schneier caused this split. Rabbi Goldschmidt didn’t. They did it by running the place so badly.

Looming over Goldschmidt’s firing is the question of who will take over once Schneier’s time as senior rabbi ends. He has shown no sign of wanting to transition to an emeritus role. But two weeks ago, as the dispute with Goldschmidt raged behind the scenes, and at the same Shabbat where Rabbi Goldschmidt was approached by security, Rabbi Marc Schneier showed up for Saturday morning services at Park East for the first time in several years. The younger Schneier has something of a checkered history: He has been married six times and was expelled from the Rabbinic Council of America in 2015, although he also built the Hamptons Synagogue into one of the affluent summer getaway’s major Jewish institutions and pushed for reconciliation between Jews and African Americans with the likes of Russell Simmons. “Marc Schneier has no desire whatsoever to be at Park East,” says Scheinkopf.

There’s a legal issue at the heart of the blowup at Park East: Exactly what is a synagogue, and who does it really belong to? New York’s Religious Corporations Law has a surprising answer to this question, one that gets into unexpectedly abstract philosophical territory. As Barry Black, a lawyer and columnist for the New York Law Journal on religion law explained, New York follows what’s known as a “dual entity doctrine” in defining the legal existence of houses of worship. A church, mosque, or synagogue consists of a spiritual community, an entity that is entitled to protections under the First Amendment—along with a corporate body with purely administrative responsibilities, like maintaining the building and managing finances. A rabbi, even an assistant rabbi, is considered part of the spiritual body, and the law treats their hiring and firing as a religious decision. “With crystal clarity, New York law requires a decision by a majority of the congregation to terminate a rabbi,” says Black. It doesn’t necessarily matter if the rabbi was hired without a majority vote, since a congregation can be ruled to have “ratified” a rabbi’s hiring by tolerating their presence on the bimah over the course of months or years.

A synagogue doesn’t exist at the whim of a single individual, regardless of how accomplished or supposedly indispensable that person is. According to one informed source close to Rabbi Schneier, the decision to fire Goldschmidt was made at the rabbi’s sole initiative, although the board voted unanimously to affirm his decision almost as soon as it was made.

But Goldschmidt also stumbled into controversy. Neither his supporters nor his detractors deny that he was offered a chance to apologize to the board for disseminating the email list—Goldschmidt also received a cease-and-desist letter from the synagogue asking him to refrain from sharing or using the member directory. From Schneier and his board’s perspective, Goldschmidt rejected the chance at a climbdown. “The sentiment from board members is that they felt it was a coup,” says a source with knowledge of the situation. “It doesn’t make a difference whether they were right or wrong. That was their feeling and they needed to be disabused of that.”

Yet from Goldschmidt and his supporters’ perspective, the rabbi worked for the congregants and not the board—he had every right to help synagogue members contact one another, and the email address-sharing issue was merely a pretext for a decision that Schneier wanted to make anyway.

It’s understandable why someone would not apologize for something they believed they were allowed to do, and that they thought was part of a needed course of action for their community. Yet even after 10 years at Park East, Goldschmidt might have misread the politics of the main sanctuary, or not fully realized how the power dynamics of a wealthy Upper East Side synagogue would stack up against a 34-year-old who came out of a much different world than most of the rest of his high-powered community.

The clash between Goldschmidt and Schneier isn’t just in style or background, though. Schneier represents a once-thriving model, one in which money, relationships, and political power define the success of a Manhattan synagogue. But it is unclear whether that accomplishment can be sustained in a time when demographics, priorities, and congregants’ expectations are shifting, a time when younger people might not mind praying in a third-floor classroom with 20 other people and a rabbi they feel they personally know and trust. Schneier was the epitome of New York rabbinic leadership for decades. But it’s possible the success of future communal leaders will look very little like his.

Schneier’s supporters at Park East believe the synagogue’s major donors are still supportive enough of Schneier to turn Goldschmidt’s firing into nothing more than a brief annoyance, rather than the trigger for a larger communal crackup. “There hasn’t been a firing of an assistant rabbi in the history of the world where people haven’t left,” as one congregant put it. True enough—for now. But that attitude, which Rabbi Schneier apparently shares, is a bet that the future will remain something like the present, a gamble that the aging leadership of a fraying congregation could easily lose.

Armin Rosen is a staff writer for Tablet Magazine.