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Jewish Journal

Discovering His Place in the World

By Naomi Pfefferman,


by Naomi Pfefferman

September 10, 1998 | 8:00 pm

From the way his friends talk about him, you'd almost think Rabbi Marc Schneier might end up chief rabbi of American Jewry some day, if he's not careful. His critics, on the other hand, suspect that's exactly what he's after, and they think it's the rest of us who'd better watch out.

Both sides say they're at least half-kidding. Schneier himself calls the notion "absurd." But don't write it off.

On one thing all sides agree: Schneier is one of the smartest, most charismatic, most ambitious young rabbis around. He's already president of no fewer than three organizations, including the intergroup affairs commission of the World Jewish Congress. His friends include politicians, billionaires, filmmakers and Catholic cardinals. He's the founding rabbi of one of the nation's fastest-growing Orthodox congregations, the ultra-chic Hampton Synagogue on Long Island, N.Y. He plans to launch a new congregation this winter in Florida, a sort of Palm Beach branch of his Hampton shul. And he's only 39.

It's his latest venture, though, that has tongues wagging. In October, he says, he'll announce the creation of the North American Board of Rabbis. It would be a national confederation uniting the local boards of rabbis that already exist in most communities around the country. "It will give a representative rabbinic voice to the American Jewish community," he says.

Local rabbinic boards bring together rabbis from across the denominational spectrum, without fanfare, to coordinate prison and hospital chaplaincy, advise school boards on the Jewish calendar, and so on. Schneier sees them as an alternative model to the feuding that now dominates national Jewish life. "There's a perception that rabbis do not get along," he says. "We look forward to changing that perception."

If it sounds audacious, blame his genes. Schneier's father, Arthur, is one of the most political and publicity-savvy rabbis in America. A Vienna-born Holocaust survivor, he created his own brand of international diplomacy in the 1960s after becoming rabbi of New York's Park East Synagogue, across the street from the Soviet U.N. mission. Forging cordial relations -- too cordial, many Jewish activists said -- with the Kremlin, the elder Schneier won Soviet permission to import prayer books, train Russian rabbis and reopen synagogues. During the 1980s, he developed ties throughout the Eastern Bloc and became a point man in Washington's human-rights policies. Just last spring, he headed a U.S. human-rights fact-finding mission to China.

Son Marc was his father's heir apparent after ordination at Yeshiva University. But in 1989, in a break both describe as painful, Marc declared independence. Publicly abandoning his father's genteel Republicanism, he became the first Orthodox rabbi in New York to endorse black liberal David Dinkins for mayor. Shortly afterward, he created his own one-man foundation, the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, to foster black-Jewish friendship and combat racism. In 1991, he left his father's pulpit, moved to Long Island and started his own synagogue.

"We all go through life trying to come in touch with our real selves," he says. "In my heart of hearts, I was a liberal, but I followed the path of doing the things I thought I was supposed to do."

It was last March, during his installation as president of the 800-member New York Board of Rabbis, that Marc Schneier first proposed a national rabbinic board. In May, he convened a national conference, drawing representatives from 35 local boards, from Maine to Los Angeles. With powerful sponsorship from the Council of Jewish Federations and the World Jewish Congress, and with high-profile guest speakers such as Israel's U.N. ambassador and the Catholic Church's interfaith affairs chief, the conference generated a mood of enthusiasm and urgency. "The American Jewish community is crying out for this," Schneier told the delegates. They voted unanimously to back the plan.

There used to be something called the Synagogue Council of America, uniting the Reform, Conservative and Orthodox movements for joint action and dialogue with other religions. It dissolved in bitterness in 1995, after the movements decided they had nothing left to discuss.

Since then, Christian leaders have complained that interfaith dialogue has become frustrating and chaotic, often undermined by Jewish bickering. "We're still scratching our heads to see what's going to happen," says Eugene Fisher, ecumenical affairs director of the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. "It's hard for us to tell who's in charge."

Concern for the health of Christian-Jewish dialogue was one of the main reasons conference delegates gave for endorsing the new board. Over the summer, though, second thoughts began to emerge. So far, only the Southern California board has openly backed away from the plan, but others are reportedly wavering.

The reason, says Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, director of the Southern California board, is the way the new body is being set up. Schneier proposes a strong executive committee, headed by a president with a four-year term. The Californians want something much looser. "I love the idea of bringing the boards of rabbis together regularly to learn and consult," Artson says. "I'm not interested in more than that."

Skepticism turned to alarm at the end of July, after an essay was published in New York by one of the conference delegates, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Stamford, Conn., who openly called for a U.S. chief rabbinate. For the Californians, that was the red line. Artson phoned New York in August to say his group would not be joining. "I told them this is on the road to creating a chief rabbi of the United States," he says.

Schneier insists that will "never, never happen. It's just absurd to suggest that we will ever have a national chief rabbi."

But Hammerman doesn't see why not. He'd like to see the new board have a six-member executive committee, representing all the movements, calling itself America's chief rabbinate. It would have safeguards against abuse, such as a rotating presidency. "It would be a symbolic institution," he says, "but a very powerful one." And if Schneier "goes in the direction he's talking about, it could almost happen by default."

"We don't have a good way in our community of finding excellent leaders," Hammerman says. "Why not rabbis?"

J.J. Goldberg writes a weekly column for The Jewish Journal.

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