A synagogue feud spills into public view: ‘Only room for one rabbi’

The New York Times
New YorkWritten By: Liam Stack © 2021 The New York Times CompanyUpdated: Dec 05, 2021, 03:14 PM IST
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People arrive for a Shabbat service held by Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, formerly of the influential Park East Synagogue in New York. (James Estrin/The New York Times) Photograph:(The New York Times)

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In October 2021, Rabbi Arthur Schneier abruptly fired Goldschmidt from Park East, and long-simmering tensions publicly exploded in a way rabbinic rivalries rarely do

Rabbi Arthur Schneier has spent decades shaping Park East Synagogue into one of the most prominent synagogues in New York, a public showcase for Modern Orthodox Judaism that has drawn visiting world leaders, including Pope Benedict XVI. He became synonymous with the synagogue and grew in stature by founding a school renamed in his honor and a nonprofit focused on human rights.

Ten years ago, he hired Benjamin Goldschmidt to be assistant rabbi, a dutiful job that has never been a steppingstone to the synagogue’s senior position. But Goldschmidt, young and charismatic, quickly began to develop his own following by focusing on the spiritual needs of what he calls “the next generation of Jews.”

The relationship between the leaders grew strained as Goldschmidt, 34, rose in popularity at a time when Park East members began to question who would take over when Schneier, 91, was no longer able to lead.

In October, Schneier abruptly fired Goldschmidt, and those long-simmering tensions publicly exploded in a way rabbinic rivalries rarely do. One New York tabloid called the conflict “The Rabbi War,” and it has captivated much of the Jewish world for its acrimony, its allegations of unlawful behavior, and the generational questions it raises about the leadership of a prominent synagogue and the future of Modern Orthodox Judaism, which is increasingly shaped by the influence of ultra-Orthodox Jews and Russian speakers.

The accusations of betrayal and lawbreaking are extraordinary public attacks between influential rabbis that led Park East to decry its former employee’s actions as “a disgrace of the Rabbinate and Torah values” and have drawn the attention of an Israeli government minister who called for the younger rabbi to be rehired.

The conflict has split the synagogue: Schneier supporters remain there, while hundreds of other Park East members have joined the younger rabbi as he leads a rival Shabbat service down the street.

“I think Rabbi Goldschmidt is an up-and-coming figure in the Orthodox world,” said David Lobl, 37, a Goldschmidt supporter. “And there is an old saying, ‘There is only room for one rabbi in a shul.’”

That rabbi is and should be Schneier, said Hank Sheinkopf, a political strategist and spokesperson for the Schneier family.

“He and the institution are identified together,” he said. “If you attack one, you attack the other.”

Both rabbis have obtained public relations representatives and legal teams. Schneier and members of the board of Park East Synagogue declined to be interviewed for this article. Goldschmidt agreed to be interviewed in the presence of a public relations adviser but declined to address the allegations he made through his lawyer that Schneier has run Park East and his foundation in ways that violate state law.

Richard Emery, a lawyer for the Schneier family and the rabbi’s foundation, blamed the younger rabbi for a conflict that he described as “internecine pettiness.”

“Goldschmidt’s manipulations to try to control PES must not be permitted to tarnish Rabbi Schneier’s 60 years of accomplishments,” Emery said in a statement.

Born in Vienna, Schneier survived the Holocaust and emigrated in 1947 to the United States. He attended New York’s Yeshiva University, which would later name its international affairs program after him. In 1962, he began working at Park East, located in one of the city’s most exclusive neighborhoods, and built it from a small, 40-person congregation into a community of 750 members today.

He founded the Appeal of Conscience Foundation in 1965 to campaign for human rights behind the Iron Curtain. The foundation’s board of trustees boasts members such as George Pataki, the former governor of New York, and executives from Deutsche Bank, Johnson & Johnson and Bank of America. He remains president of the charitable organization.

He also founded the Rabbi Arthur Schneier Park East Day School in 1976 and remains dean of the school, which became eponymous in 1990.

Schneier’s tenure has combined the daily spiritual work of a rabbi and the advocacy and institution building of a public figure. During the Cold War, he held rallies in support of Soviet Jews in front of Park East, which sat across the street from a Soviet diplomatic mission, and was awarded a Presidential Citizens Medal in 2001.

As news of the discord at Park East spread, the public profiles of both rabbis led the Israeli government to weigh in.

In a letter to the synagogue, Yoel Razvozov, Israel’s tourism minister and former head of its parliamentary diaspora committee, called for Goldschmidt to be rehired. He said the “crisis” at Park East “definitely puts a shadow over the integration of the Russian-speaking Jews in the greater Jewish community of New York.”

From the beginning, Goldschmidt was an unconventional fit for an Upper East Side Modern Orthodox synagogue like Park East.

Goldschmidt was born in Israel and raised in Russia, and a representative for Park East said it hired him in 2011 as a favor to his father, Pinchas Goldschmidt, chief rabbi of Moscow and president of the Conference of European Rabbis.

Unlike many Modern Orthodox leaders, Goldschmidt does not have a college degree and was educated at religiously conservative Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, schools in Israel and New Jersey.

In 2014, he married journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt in a wedding ceremony featured in The New York Times “Vows” section and attended by 1,000 guests, including renowned sex therapist Dr. Ruth Westheimer.

Chizhik-Goldschmidt’s social media presence has helped boost their image as emerging leaders and includes photos of her husband and children and links to her journalistic work on Jewish issues. (She has also contributed two pieces to the Times opinion section, one about her husband and a second about their courtship.)

In his years at Park East, Goldschmidt concentrated on attracting young families like his own to the synagogue.

“What I feel like is my greatest responsibility is how to engage the next generation,” Goldschmidt said in an interview. “For me, that is the number one, two, three most important thing.”

As Goldschmidt’s influence grew, Park East members said, Schneier began to reduce his visibility and authority: His seat on the dais was replaced with a rickety folding chair. He was stripped of responsibility for a prayer group he started. Chizhik-Goldschmidt was forbidden from mentoring bat mitzvah students.

In October, a group of congregants supportive of Goldschmidt sent an email to all the members of the synagogue and parents of children who attend the day school expressing concern about the future of Park East and criticizing the synagogue’s poor appeal to young families.

In interviews, supporters of Goldschmidt described Schneier as a self-aggrandizing nonagenarian who is unwilling to cede the spotlight or to allow Park East members to participate in the governance of the synagogue.

The email angered Schneier, who saw it as disapproving of his leadership. He soon learned that Goldschmidt gave the contact list to the group that distributed the email and quickly fired him for what he called a violation of members’ privacy.

Three days later, Schneier announced the termination in his own email to the congregation. In that email, he accused the members who wrote the previous email of having “no real ideas” for the future and being driven by “other motives” that he declined to “dignify in this letter to you, my beloved congregation.” Park East later said in a statement that it had been unhappy with the younger rabbi’s job performance.

Goldschmidt could never take over Park East because his education at a Haredi yeshiva, which do not grant bachelor’s degrees, did not meet the synagogue’s “minimum education standards” and was culturally out of step with its peer institutions, said Sheinkopf.

“Look at the other synagogues in the Modern Orthodox vein,” he said. “It is unlikely that someone from a Haredi background would in fact wind up as the rabbi of that institution.”

After he was fired, Goldschmidt decided to tell the news media about what he described as the inappropriate operations of Park East, although he did not take his concerns to law enforcement.

He hired Daniel L. Kurtz, a lawyer who led the Charities Bureau at the New York state Attorney General’s Office from 1979 to 1985, and accused Schneier of concentrating power at Park East and the foundation in ways that violated state law.

The foundation paid Schneier $200,000 and his daughter, Karen Dresbach, $225,000, according to its 2020 tax filings, which also note that the rabbi had an estimated income of $400,000 from other unnamed sources. The filings said the foundation rents space in a building owned by Schneier. Kurtz described that arrangement as “self-dealing.”

Lawyers for Schneier said the rental agreement had been fully approved by the foundation’s board and that the rent amount — under $200,000 per year for most of a four-story building on East 71st Street — was far below market rate.

The rabbi also worked for the foundation without pay for the first 47 years of its operation until the board decided to begin paying him in 2012. His daughter was hired in 2017 after an 18-year career as a nonprofit executive in Florida, and both were paid less than the leaders of many comparable nonprofits, his lawyers said.

Some Park East members worry that Schneier aspires to hand the reins to his son, Marc Schneier, founder of the upscale Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, and say that they disapprove. But the rabbi’s son has no interest in inheriting his father’s operation, Sheinkopf said.

Still, Goldschmidt called the Schneiers’ various arrangements a demonstration that the rabbi has been using his foundation to financially benefit himself and his family, allegations that Emery said were “categorically false.”

In addition to questioning the foundation’s financial practices, Kurtz said his client believed Park East was being governed in a way that violated state law.

The law governing religious groups requires synagogues to hold regular membership meetings so congregants can elect a board of trustees and obtain information about the synagogue’s finances, Kurtz said.

Four Park East members who Kurtz also represents have requested the synagogue’s bylaws and financial information. None of their requests have been fulfilled, he said.

In an interview, Goldschmidt said there had been no membership meetings during his decade at Park East. His lawyer said the synagogue’s board of trustees was appointed by Schneier, not elected, which Kurtz said was “blatantly illegal.”

Schneier’s lawyer said that his client was not involved in Park East’s operations and bears no responsibility for any unlawful actions that may have been taken by its leadership, although he “occasionally makes suggestions of possible new board members.”

In a statement, Park East declined to say how board members obtain their seats. Schneier’s lawyer also declined to provide that information.

The synagogue said the accusations are aimed at “intentionally defaming” the synagogue and its senior rabbi. It also criticized Goldschmidt for not expressing concern about its operations while on staff and accused him of going to the news media in “a coordinated effort to spread rumors, lies and distrust” that violated “the tenets of the Jewish faith.”

Goldschmidt said his loyalty is to the people of Park East, not its administrators.

“The way I see it, my ultimate responsibility is to members of the congregation,” he said.

Last month, Goldschmidt supporters of all ages gathered for Shabbat at an Upper East Side event space down the street from Park East. They packed the room and poured into the hallway to hear the rabbi speak. In his sermon, Goldschmidt alluded to the conflict.

“I have mixed feelings today,” he said. “This is not an ideal situation. When there is a family feud, there are no victors. And we are a family, a community, one people.”

Down the street on another Saturday, people gathered for Schneier’s service. Standing before the crowd, most of them older adults, he reflected on the way that “Jewish leaders have transformed the skyline here in our great city.”

When taking stock of your life, he told them, it is important to embrace a “spirit of thanksgiving.”

“We thank you, God,” Schneier said. “Be grateful for every day of your life.”