Marc Schneier is founding rabbi of the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, New York and founder and president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding. He received his rabbinical ordination from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, a seminal American Jewish leader and philosopher who, in his 90 years, mentored tens of thousands of Jews personally.
Over the past 15 years, building on two decades’ work as a bridge-builder between the African-American and American Jewish communities, Schneier has sought to strengthen relations between Jews and Muslims — first within the United States, and subsequently in Europe and the Middle East. A frequent visitor to Arab capitals, he is a member of the Advisory Forum of the King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz Center for Interreligious and Intercultural Dialogue. Earlier this year, he led the first-ever synagogue mission to a Gulf state — the Kingdom of Bahrain. As of this week, he has been officially designated Special Advisor to Bahraini King Hamad bin Issa Al Khalifa, to assist in the further development of the King Hamad Global Centre for Peaceful Co-Existence.
Rabbi Schneier met with Majalla to discuss the institution of the rabbinate, the American Jewish community’s history of social action, his experience as a bridge-builder between Jews and Muslims, and his plans for the future.
Q: You’re eighteenth in an uninterrupted line of rabbis. Where did the line begin, and how did it make its way to you?
A: My family has many generations of rabbis in Russia, and we had a few in Austria. My father and his mother were refugees of the Nazi occupation of Austria, and I always joke about how my father fled the wrong way — to Budapest, Hungary, where he was in the ghetto — and then he came here to the U.S. But it’s a lineage that we’re very proud of. As for me, I was ordained in 1983 at Yeshiva University. There were 43 students in my class, and most became rabbis. Among them today, I’m the only one left in the rabbinate. I think some went into Jewish education, and most went into some other profession.
Q: Why did 42 of the 43 end up working in other realms?
A: The rabbinate is a very challenging profession. As a rabbi, whoever is in your congregation, you have to work with them. There are very few professions like that. A lawyer can choose his clients, for example, and a writer can choose his subjects. A rabbi cannot choose his congregants. And not too many people can really sustain that kind of dynamic. It’s the challenge of being “on” 24 hours a day, seven days a week. You’re everything from an orator to a spiritual leader to a therapist to a guidance counselor. You really are called upon for many, many different responsibilities. Furthermore, we live in an age where people no longer choose to make lifelong commitments to a profession. When you’re a rabbi, particularly a high-profile one, you’re in the public eye. But those who are in the public eye tend not to make it a lifelong commitment. You might be a member of Congress for eight or ten years, or the mayor of a city for maybe two terms. I’m blessed to have been a rabbi for over 35 years, and I probably don’t know better, but it is great — it’s very fulfilling.
Q: In your work you have straddled leadership of a synagogue congregation with organized social action. How common is it for rabbis to do both?
A: I do come from a rabbinic tradition of making both a spiritual practice and an organizational, social action practice. Not many rabbis do both, but it’s my family’s legacy. And there’s a contrast, particularly in the Orthodox rabbinate, between this generation and the prior generation. In the prior generation, you had many more rabbis who were more social action conscious. Today, pulpit rabbis tend to focus on their congregations, and tend to eschew any kind of organizational involvement. I’ve seen the change more generationally here in the U.S. When you look at some of the major Jewish organizations in the 1950s, ‘60s, and ‘70s, they were headed by rabbis. Today you don’t see that to nearly the same degree. You see this bifurcation between the congregational rabbinate and Jewish organizational leadership. I think Orthodox rabbis today are far more parochial, more provincial. Many of them are in positions of serving as virtual administrators to their congregation. They don’t necessarily adopt a global view. It’s a more insular culture.
Q: The mid-twentieth century legacy you alluded to included a substantial Jewish contribution to the American civil rights movement.
A: When you examine the civil rights struggle led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., there was no segment of American society that provided as much and as consistent support to Dr. King and to the African American community as did the Jewish community. This great social and political change in our country’s history was a result of that historic black-Jewish alliance. Our participation on the ground was also disproportionately large in terms of our numbers within the general population. Of the famous “Freedom Riders” who came down from the North, close to 70 percent of participants were young Jewish men and women, even though we were less than one percent of the greater population. But that’s part of our tradition — the importance of helping those who are less fortunate, alliance building, and bridge building.
Q: How does Jewish tradition express those values?
A: When people discuss the Torah, they tend to focus on the injunction to “Love your neighbor as yourself” — but that is only mentioned in the Torah once. And what kind of challenge is it to love your neighbor, after all? When you think about it, your neighbor is probably of the same faith, has the same interests, and sends his children to the same school as you do. By contrast, the injunction to “love the stranger” is mentioned in the Torah 36 times. The stranger is someone who does not share your religious beliefs, and is not necessarily residing in your neighborhood. That’s the ultimate challenge. And so I often speak about the importance of evolving from loving your neighbor to loving the stranger.
Q: The black-Jewish alliance you spoke of was later severely tested.
A: After Dr. King’s assassination, the historic alliance began to spiral downward. Probably its lowest point were the riots in Crown Heights, Brooklyn in 1991, which pitted blacks against Jews. Relations spiraled downward for a host of reasons. Jews began to feel disenfranchised from African American organizations. The civil rights struggle began to identify with the Palestinian cause in their struggle with Israel — by contrast to the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, who spoke of Israel as the oasis of democracy in the Middle East. Dr. King was a great advocate for the state of Israel, just as Dr. King had spoken out against antisemitism when it reared its ugly head within the more militant black movement in the civil rights struggle. Dr. King was also involved in the plight of freeing Soviet Jews. So after you had had Dr. Martin Luther King, who not only fought for the civil rights of blacks but also for the civil rights of Jews as well, suddenly you no longer had the same commitment. Then you saw the emergence of [“Nation of Islam” leader] Louis Farrakhan, in terms of his many disparaging remarks about Jews. You saw the whole controversy over [African American politician and activist] Andrew Young meeting with representatives of the PLO at the UN. Then there were accusations against Israel on the part of blacks for its relationship with the apartheid regime in South Africa. So there was a whole mixture of reasons why the alliance really went from a state of cooperation to a state of conflict.
Q: What drove you to attempt to restore the black-Jewish alliance?
A: I was a young rabbi, committed to my family’s legacy of serving a congregation and organizing social action. In the latter category, I was looking for some area where I could make a contribution. And I began to realize that the changing demographics of the U.S. — the growth of the African American, Latino, and Asian American communities — would have a considerable impact on the American Jewish community and the state of Israel. On Martin Luther King Day in January 1988, New York City Mayor Ed Koch held a commemoration at City Hall, and he invited me to offer the invocation. The Boys Choir of Harlem was there, and they sang two numbers: “We Shall Overcome,” which is the banner of the civil rights struggle; and “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” And when I heard “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” I had an epiphany. Something struck a chord with me, or within me. I began to research the history of black-Jewish relations and present state of black-Jewish relations. And I was inspired by what I learned to create the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding in 1989.
Q: What was the role of the foundation’s co-founder, the late Joseph Papp?
A: Joseph Papp was a great American icon who will always be remembered as a Broadway impresario. He was the producer of A Chorus Line, Pirates of Penzance, and other great shows. But what many don’t remember about Papp was that he was a pioneer of “color casting.” I remember being at his office, at the height of the popularity of The Cosby Show [a TV sitcom starring African American comedian Bill Cosby]. Papp would say to me, “Why must a TV show be all black, like The Cosby Show, or all white, like All in the Family? Why can’t casting be colorblind?” I later had conversations with black actors like Morgan Freeman and James Earl Jones who said that had it not been for Papp, they would never have had the opportunity to be cast in Shakespearean roles.
Joe and I brought different ideas to the Foundation. He was about different ethnicities coming together. I thought that in a city like New York, where we have more than 200 ethnic communities, you can try to accomplish everything and end up achieving nothing. So I said, let’s focus on rebuilding black-Jewish relations. I believe that when history is written, the Foundation will be credited with playing a leading role in restoring black-Jewish relations to where it is today.
Q: How has the relationship between the two communities improved?
A: In sum, the historic civil rights alliance has been restored, and African Americans and Jews regularly engage in programs to explore shared values. I remember on Martin Luther King Day, we’d place huge ads in the New York Amsterdam News [a prominent African American newspaper] that would highlight all the joint programs of commemoration — and there were so many that we couldn’t even include all of them. Elliot Tatum, publisher of the newspaper, would say that there were more Martin Luther King programs in the Jewish community than in the American-American community.
I was pleased that in addition to the role of the Foundation’s activities in bringing about this change, my book Shared Dreams, co-written with Martin Luther King III, had an impact all its own. It studied the life of Dr. King in terms of how he related to the Jewish community, and informed many of the Martin Luther King Day observances. There’s a joke in the Israeli foreign ministry among the Consuls General here in the U.S., that I would always get a call from them before Martin Luther King Day, in which they’d say, “Where’s the book?” — because they referred to it so much when discussing the black-Jewish relationship and Dr. King’s solidarity with the state of Israel. The Foundation meanwhile published numerous curriculum guides, for college students and high school students. All this served to help make MLK very much in vogue within the American Jewish community, which was not the case before we came on the scene.
Q: Your focus has since evolved toward mending Jewish-Muslim relations.
A: It’s not a question of mending so much as building relations among different faiths, sects, and ethnic communities, that is at the very core — the very center of Judaism. I spoke about the injunction to “love the stranger.” And I think one of our great examples in this country is how the American Jewish community today is probably the greatest defender and supporter of the American Muslim community. That’s not my words: If you were to interview American Muslim leaders, they would tell you that in their own struggles here in the US, in light of certain legislations, biases, and attacks on Muslim institutions and individuals, there’s been no greater defender than American Jews. And I must say that this climate of the exponential growth of Islamophobia has only brought our two communities closer.
In support of that process, our foundation facilitated and sponsored the two major rallies in Times Square, beginning last year, titled, “Today I am a Muslim too.” It was the first time American Muslims went to the streets, supported by people of other faiths, to demonstrate their commitment to the U.S. and their commitment to their faith at the same time. It was a very emotional setting. It was a cadre of rabbis and Christian ministers who openly declared, “Today I am a Muslim too” — in solidarity with the American Muslim community. This was done at a trying time for American Muslims, after the Peter King hearings, the anti-Muslim travel ban, and so on.
This week as you interview me is the premiere of my first film. I’m now officially a producer. The film is called Jinn. It’s the story of a 17-year-old girl growing up in this country as an American Muslim. It’s the first-ever full feature film on the subject and the challenges of dealing with Islamophobia and anti-Muslim bigotry. It’s playing in theaters all across the country. And it was a rabbi who happens to be one of the producers of the film.
Q: What in your mind is the common thread that runs through these projects?
A: One lesson I learned from Martin Luther King is that “a people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they fight for the rights of all people.” It’s about fighting for the other. It’s about developing an empathetic imagination where you can put yourself in the place of the other. Because only when you can truly see the other can you preserve the humanity within yourself. I often refer to Islam and Judaism as a common faith and a common fate, and how it’s our single destiny, particularly between Muslims and Jews, to strengthen our bonds of concern and compassion and see each other as children of God, entitled to the dignity, justice, and compassion that we claim for ourselves. This is very much a cardinal principle of Judaism, and it’s very much a wonderful tradition here in the United States of America. You saw a further outpouring of solidarity and compassion after the massacre of 11 worshippers at the synagogue in Pittsburgh in October: The American Muslim community in Pittsburgh raised $200,000 to pay for the burials of those Jewish victims. So here in the U.S., from a bridge-building, coexistence perspective, we are living in some remarkable times. We know that at the end of the day, the bigots, the white supremacists, are not going to discriminate between Muslims, Jews, African Americans, Latinos. It’s open season for them on “non-whites” or other faith communities, and so we need to bond together. And this is a challenge not only in the U.S.; it’s becoming a global challenge. Look at the situation in Europe today. CNN just released a study this morning that indicated that one out of every five Europeans is antisemitic. This is 75 years after the Holocaust. Who could imagine? Jews and Muslims, Israel and its neighbors, cannot afford to be in a state of conflict. We have too many enemies that are looking to see us eradicated.
Q: Is your approach controversial within the Jewish community?
A: I was very much under attack by colleagues and others — particularly after we pivoted from black-Jewish to Muslim-Jewish relations. With respect to black-Jewish relations, there were some hurt feelings within the Jewish community after the way they had been treated by the African American community, knowing of our singular role in the civil rights struggle. But I’d say after 15-16 years of working exclusively in this field, I think here at the foundation we were branded more as heroes than anything else. The same thing happened in Muslim-Jewish relations. When we first entered the field, the Muslim world was seen as being a very real threat, an existential threat to the Jewish people. So some members of the community would say, how can you sit down with Muslims? How can you have a dialogue? Today, by contrast, Muslim-Jewish relations are very “chic.” It’s become kind of a cause celebre. I get a sense of this from how many people now call us looking for guidance on Muslim-Jewish dialogue, resource materials, and so on. But it wasn’t easy at the beginning.
Q: What is the “Season of Twinning”?
A: In 2007 I convened the first North American summit of imams and rabbis. We had about 40 imams and rabbis from major cities across North America — from Los Angeles, Miami, Boston, Washington, Montreal, Toronto — to try and begin this process. I took a page out of the playbook of the National Conference of Christians and Jews. They used to have their “Brotherhood Week.” I said, let’s do an equivalent for Muslims and Jews. The “season of twinning” grew out of a half-day summit here in New York: The original goal was to pair off 25 synagogues and mosques, but we ended up launching with 50 synagogues and mosques. A “twinning” might consist of anything from an imam speaking in a synagogue, to a rabbi speaking in a mosque, to an exchange among the respective congregations’ schools. It could be two sisterhoods coming together. It could be a joint program on feeding the hungry. It could be more theological, or more cultural. In each case, the participants committed to confronting hate in their respective communities — whether Islamophobia within the Jewish community or antisemitism within the Muslim community.
The first weekend of twinning — which took place on November 21-23, 2008 — happened to coincide with the historic visit of the late Saudi King Abdullah bin Abdelaziz to New York. It was providential, one might say. That was the time when the King came to the UN to deliver his famous address on his interfaith initiative. When the King hosted a reception for the 100 top American religious leaders, I had the honor of being the only one asked to speak. And it proved to be the beginning of a relationship that has only grown.
Q: Among your many public visits to Arab capitals, you brought the first-ever synagogue mission to the Gulf. How did that come about?
A: His Majesty King Hamad, said, “Rabbi, you should bring your community to Bahrain and I would love to meet them.” Meanwhile, the president of my synagogue, Carol Levin, who is quite well known in Jewish philanthropic circles, noted that many people had made requests of me to lead a congregational mission to Israel. So my response was, why do I need to lead a mission to Israel, because practically everyone in this congregation is playing a leadership role in a major Jewish organization, and all have been to Israel 25 times. So Carol said to me, it’s time for you to fuse your two worlds. I said, well I have this open invitation to go to Bahrain. And that’s what happened. Like everything else I do, the hope was to inspire other congregations to follow suit. Today in the Jewish community, if you’re thinking outside of the box, and you want an Arab experience, you go to Morocco, maybe Egypt, Jordan. No one had done a mission to the Gulf before. I’m hoping in coming years that we can expand that program.
Q: Why Bahrain — and what did the synagogue mission do when it got there?
A: What’s unique about Bahrain is that it’s the only Gulf state to have an enduring, officially recognized, indigenous Jewish community. We spent time with the members of that community. We had some private meetings with members of the royal family — not the whole group — and with some of the ministers, including economic ministers and the minister of tourism. We met of course with the U.S. ambassador. We visited the synagogue. We visited a mosque. For many in the group, this was their first time ever in a mosque. We explained the similarities between Islam and Judaism — for example, how Muslims pray five times a day whereas we pray three times a day; how the dietary restrictions are similar and different, between kosher and halal; and the fact that Muslims pray toward Mecca whereas Jews face Jerusalem.
As I said earlier, we went to Bahrain not only for ourselves, but also to really use it as an opportunity to challenge and inspire other congregations to follow suit. Because I’m a great believer that the more engagement you have between Muslims and Jews, particularly in the Gulf, the more opportunities we have for genuine authentic understanding.
Q: You’ve indicated that you see a new frontier in efforts to promote understanding between two non-Jewish communities: Muslims and Evangelical Christians.
A: The issue of Muslim-Evangelical relations is coming up initially with respect to Azerbaijan. There is a challenge in the U.S. in a brewing conflict — or misunderstanding — between Evangelical Christians and American Muslims. On the Evangelical Christian side, for example, there’s a total lack of understanding about what Shari’a is, what Jihad means. But there is ignorance on both sides. We’re about to begin a study — an opinion survey — of the state of relations between Evangelical Christians and American Muslims. The Republic of Azerbaijan is sponsoring the study, particularly President Ilham Aliev, and as a result of the study, God willing in March, I’ll be leading a delegation of 40 Christian Evangelical pastors to Azerbaijan to be exposed to a country in the Muslim world that is very open, very inclusive, and most tolerant — particularly when it comes to how it treats its indigenous Jewish community, which is in excess of 25,000 people. Numerous leaders in the Middle East, in fact, are very intrigued by the Evangelical Christian community here in the U.S., which is very much the foundation of President Trump’s base. So, I see us moving in that direction also.