Rabbi at forefront of faith, ethnic dialogue

By C.B. Hanif

South Florida’s winter weather draws many northerners, but Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York has an even better reason to visit: His mother, Donna Schneier Goldberg, and her husband, Leonard, live in Manalapan.

On a recent sunny Sunday afternoon, their waterfront home hosted the Alpert Jewish Family & Children's Service’s inaugural Chai Society meeting for its major donors. So what better guest speaker for thanking supporters of the nationally accredited agency, which serves vulnerable Palm Beach County seniors, families and children, than the internationally noted rabbi.

“Chai,” transliterated as “cha-yim,” said Rabbi Schneier, “in Hebrew means life.”

In all the world’s languages, he told his listeners, the word for life is in the singular, except in Hebrew. “Because Judaism understands that one cannot live life in the singular, one must live life in the plural. And the gathering here is a demonstration, is a manifestation, of this group’s commitment to live life in the plural, by caring, by sharing, by giving to those who are less fortunate.”

The agency, through dozens of social service programs at 45th Street in West Palm Beach, works to fulfill the Jewish value of tikkun olam: repairing the world, one person at a time.

It is one of innumerable causes Schneier champions.

Another is the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, chaired by hip hop mogul Russell Simmons, and of which the rabbi is president and co-founder.

As an 18th-generation rabbi and a leading voice for dialogue and cooperation among ethnic and faith communities, Schneier always is on a mission.

His “big focus right now: trying to create an international campaign of strengthening relations between Muslims and Jews.”

The Muslim Journal was one of few national publications to note the first summit in North America of rabbis and imams — about a dozen each — which Schneier helped convene in 2007. After an initial goal of pairing 25 mosques with 25 synagogues, he said, the count has grown to more than 100 mosques and 100 synagogues “twinned” in North America, with other countries looking to replicate the concept.

He draws on the cooperation between Jews and African-Americans in the civil rights movement for a key theme today: the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s concept that “people who fight for their own rights are only as honorable as when they’re fighting for the rights of all people.”

Once considered a pariah for promoting better relations between Jews and African-Americans in an atmosphere where, for example, the Rev. Jesse Jackson had referred to New York City as “Hymietown,” today, he said, “I’m going through a very similar trajectory with Jewish-Muslim relations. Needless to say, the stakes are much higher. But I’m confident.”

He sees “a two-way street, that’s the kind of world we need. The Jewish people, we can’t fight our battles alone.

Nor can the Muslim community fight their battles alone. We have to be fully sensitive to the concerns, to the issues, to the struggles of the other. And see each one of us as a child of God, who is entitled to be treated with the dignity and justice and the compassion that we claim for ourselves.”

The 21st century challenge, he said, will be outreach to the Muslim community. “And I think one of the reasons why people have not entered that fray is that they are unsure what to do, there’s trepidation, there’s anxiety.

“But that’s very much my spirit. I’m a pioneer,” said the personable rabbi. “My friends in the Islamic world need a little bit of help. And I’m here to help.”

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Rabbi Marc Schneier of New York has been recognized as one of America’s 50 most prominent Jews and 50 top rabbis. He serves the New York Synagogue in Manhattan and the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, both of which he founded. He is past president of the New York Board of Rabbis, the world’s largest interdenominational rabbinic body, and past president of the North American Board of Rabbis. He is chairman of the World Jewish Congress United States, and vice president of the World Jewish Congress.

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