The succession soap opera at Park East Synagogue

Rabbi Arthur Schneier

Most leaders understand the importance of succession planning. Thoughtful cultivation of succession helps assure continuity and affords the successor time to learn the intricacies of institutional operations and cultivate necessary relationships. When done right, succession planning streamlines the transition process and helps avoid uncertainty and confusion when a long-serving leader leaves office.

Not all leaders worry about succession. For some, it’s a matter of ego, and an inability to accept the idea that someone will replace them. For others, there is the fear that cultivating a suitable successor will threaten the incumbent’s continuing control and prominence. And for still others, there is either a deaf ear to the need for such planning or a simple unwillingness to do so.

A textbook example of the consequences of ignoring thoughtful succession planning is playing out in public view at the prestigious Park East Synagogue in New York City. The lead players are the synagogue’s famous and well-respected 91-year-old senior rabbi, Arthur Schneier, who has lead the synagogue for nearly six decades, and Benjamin Goldschmidt, the popular 34-year-old assistant rabbi, who has held that position for the past 10 years.

According to reports, the spark that ignited the public aspect of the controversy was an email sent to the entire congregation’s membership by two members of the synagogue, praising Rabbi Schneier’s career and his many accomplishments, but announcing their formation of a committee “to revitalize the synagogue and build a sustainable future.” Although the senders promised to work with Schneier, Goldschmidt and the synagogue’s board of trustees, neither the existence of the self-appointed committee nor the message it sent had been cleared with synagogue leadership. Adding to the intrigue, reports indicate that it was Goldschmidt who gave the senders the synagogue’s member email list.

Reaction was quick and brutal. The insurgent “committee’s” bona fides were challenged, their “plan” was ridiculed and Goldschmidt was fired. Competing member-driven petitions in support of Goldschmidt and Schneier were generated, accusatory and demeaning emails were exchanged and both sides have engaged counsel and have threatened litigation.
That’s not what is supposed to happen.

Park East Synagogue is among the most venerable and respected Modern Orthodox synagogues in the world. It is situated in the wealthy enclave of New York’s tony Upper East Side, and has risen to prominence on the shoulders of Schneier — a Holocaust survivor and human rights activist, who pioneered the contemporary role of Jewish communal emissary to world leaders and diplomats. Schneier also exercises near-unchallenged control of the synagogue.

There can be little question that Goldschmidt, the son of Russia’s chief rabbi, should have known that his supporters’ gambit was risky. And he had to understand that his active facilitation of their challenge was a declaration of war. Perhaps reports of the mounting tensions between Schneier and Goldschmidt were accurate, and he felt he had no choice but to force the succession issue.

Goldschmidt appears to have miscalculated. He lost. But there are no winners in this story.

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