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January 6th, 2005

A conversation with Rabbi Schneier…

by D. Clark MacPherson

What really interested us in Rabbi Schneier was the fact that his name came up in every conversation that involved the amazing transformation of Westhampton Beach. The Village has changed from a summer rental and share house Mecca that featured Club Marrakesh, to a family-oriented cultural haven. The shops on Main Street aren’t complaining. The group houses are. We didn’t ask the beer distributor. The two institutions that have fostered this cultural renaissance are the Performing Arts Center and the Synagogue. Both are a result of the work of many people, but the energy and determination behind both of them was pure Schneier. He may demur but that is the essential truth.

He is an Orthodox Rabbi, a fact that often foments distrust among non-Jews. In fact, though, while he is clearly a man of God, he is also someone who is dedicated to his mission of cooperation and trust. Above all he is dedicated to the promotion of harmony. His Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, with whom he shares the limelight with rap artist Russell Simmons, draws upon Martin Luther King’s teachings. According to Schneier, King set the politically correct standard for racial harmony and cooperation. With offices in New York and Washington, the Foundation is a powerful engine for AfricanAmerican/Jewish cooperation and fundraising to support this important work. Rabbi Schneier presides over The Hampton Synagogue from April until October and the rest of the year he is at The New York Synagogue and the Foundation. He’s a busy guy with an impressive agenda.

While he spoke about the problems encountered in saving the Performing Arts theatre from demolition (it was to become a condo development), he felt very proud of the accomplishment, which was aided by Len Conway and Howard Rubenstein. And, although he had encountered resistance in building the Synagogue in 1994, he counts many of the local politicians as his friend. He also spoke fondly of Simon (Beach Bakery), who came to Rabbi Schneier and freely offered to restock his establishment so that it is one of (if not the only) kosher bakery in the Hampton’s.

The Synagogue is an incredible draw, with a congregation that travels from as far as Amagansett in one direction and from New York City in the other direction, each week. Services often have as many as 800 people.

When asked about the fact that anti-Semitism still seems to play a role in Southampton politics and is a factor in the social structure as well, he replied that his mission is to foster cooperation and understanding. That if there were still pockets of Hamptonians that do not yet accept “the Standard” (cooperation and harmony as espoused by Martin Luther King), this would be an impediment to solving racial and ethinic problems. He seemed to say that such behavior is simply, well, naive and foolish.

When asked about what he is most proud of, besides his family, he replied, “I’m there for my congregation. If someone sneezes, I’m on the phone. Besides my family, if anyone from my congregation needs me, I drop everything and attend to their needs.” So, with the wide support and appreciation that Rabbi Schneier has, does he have any political aspirations? Simply. No.

While he enjoyed visits to the White House during the presidency of Bill Clinton and now regularly meets with representatives of Congress, his agenda is religious and philosophical, not political. He is working for a “Re-United States” and positive relations between Blacks and Jews, Muslims and Gentiles.

And, as for Westhampton Beach, he believes that this rejuvenated Village will continue to grow as a center of Art and Culture-eclipsing even Easthampton.

Rabbi Schneier is a man to know and appreciate. His accomplishments are a testament to his energy and convictions.

D. Clark MacPherson

Filed Under: Articles | Arts & Leisure | the Hamptons

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