Interview: Marc Schneier
Marc Schneier is an 18th-generation rabbi. Creator and spiritual leader of pioneering synagogues in New York City and on Long Island, Schneier, 47, is driven by pastoral demands and demographic change. He heads the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, also New York-based, which aims to strengthen Jewish ties with other American minorities, and chairs the Commission on Intergroup Relations of the World Jewish Congress.
Q. How different will the face of America be in 2030?
A. Demographers forecast that…minorities—Latinos, African-Americans and Asian-Americans—will constitute a majority in this country.
Q. How do these changes translate politically?
A. Take a look at Congress. In 1985, there were 21 black members. Twenty years later, we have 44…. In 1985, there were 10 Latino members; today there are 23. There was no Asian caucus to speak of back then, and today there are 10 members. At the current rate, the House of Representatives within 40 years will likely be one-quarter to one-third minority.
Q. Will minorities vote only for their own members?
A. Not exclusively, but there is a tradition in this country of ethnic allegiance, pride and identification. In a democracy based on one-man, one-vote, we will likely see a new American political face that will be more reflective of the nation’s cultural diversity. I see this as a natural process…. There is no doubt that these demographics will impact on the American Jewish community.
Q. The predictable question: Good or bad for the Jews?
A. It is definitely a challenge. I am optimistic, however, based on some polling work we have done through our foundation [www.ffeu.org]. When it comes to race, there is a generational divide. Young people are more tolerant… than their parents. As this concept of unity and cultural diversity takes firmer hold in mainstream America, the new generation will eventually assume leadership…and that will usher in a new general orientation. I don’t view these changes as a bad thing and, indeed, think it could turn into a very positive one. America can turn into an even better, fuller model or example to the wider world.
Q. Less than 10 years ago, it was people like Louis Farrakhan and Al Sharpton who seemed to set the tone of black-Jewish relations from the African-American side. Today, moderate voices predominate. What happened?
A. First, we have seen the emergence of a new African-American leadership. I am proud that one of the…leaders of this community, according to The New York Times and others, is [hip-hop pioneer] Russell Simmons, my close friend and fellow leader at the foundation. In the development of hip-hop culture, whether it’s Simmons or Jay-Z or Sean Combs, these individuals are committed to strengthening black-Jewish relations and supporting Israel. In the entertainment industry in general there is a genuine, authentic synergy between blacks and Jews.
Q. How did that happen in such a short time?
A. Twenty years ago there…were Jews in many top [entertainment] business positions and blacks were more in middle management and as entertainers. Today, when we do a benefit performance, we find Russell Simmons with Edgar Bronfman Jr., or Dick Parsons, the head of Time Warner, with Lyor Cohen [chairman and CEO of Warner Music Group]. The playing field is far more even.
Q. Don’t global circumstances also have an impact?
A. Surely. We now face a crisis and a challenge from the Muslim world, which 10 or 15 years ago didn’t exist. Back then, we would challenge mainstream black leaders to speak out and denounce Farrakhan and [Leonard] Jeffries and even statements made then by Al Sharpton. The response typically would be, ‘We don’t control those people, they don’t reflect our views,’ but it wasn’t until the Jewish community held certain African-American leaders accountable for some of the negative pronouncements and actions [that] black-Jewish relations improved. Today, cooperation rather than conflict is the defining element of this relationship. Our two communities are actively engaged in programs to rediscover shared values. The Congressional Black Caucus is actively engaged with the Jewish Caucus. You see genuine friendships between the groups.
Q. Have improved black-Jewish relations been translated into warmer feelings for Israel?
A. The fact that Israel is so culturally diverse resonates quite positively. Israel is not ‘just’ Jews. It is…Jews from over 100 countries and cultures…. Israel is the only country in the world—the only one with an overwhelming white majority—which hastened to rescue endangered Africans into Israeli society en masse, no strings attached. What can blacks [do] other than praise Israel’s airlift of the Ethiopian Jews? Israel is the ultimate minority success story, all about a tiny people that survived countless setbacks and still managed to sustain its identity and culture.
Q. How do you view Israel in the wake of the Lebanon war?
A. Two challenges confront Israel. First is the demographic challenge. I supported Prime Minister Olmert’s plan for disengagement and convergence. I am frankly disappointed that these seem to be on hold. We Jews cannot afford to slip into minority status in our own state. The second danger is…this clash of civilizations that is occurring around the world. Until more centrist Islamic leaders arise, and that may take some time, we face serious problems, many of which manifest themselves in Israel: Hamas, Hezbollah, increasingly fanatical Muslims.
Q. Why Islam, why now?
A. Islam is the only major religion that has never experienced a sweeping reformation. It was not until Martin Luther…that the Catholic Church was impelled to temper and reform itself. I am an Orthodox rabbi, but I must observe that the emergence of Modern Orthodox Judaism as defined by Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch [1808-1888] was a response to clashes between traditional Orthodoxy and nascent Reform Judaism. What Islam desperately needs is its own reform movement from within that will present a more centrist, moderate way. A faith of 1.2 billion people that has been hijacked by a relatively small group of extremists is acutely dangerous for the world.
Q. Your eyes light up when you talk about being a rabbi. In the context of 2006, what constitutes a good rabbi?
A. One who is creative, who thinks out of the box, who offers a spiritual—not just a ritualistic—experience to his congregants. In my own Orthodox community, I am saddened to observe that many of the most observant congregations are the least spiritual ones.… Yet, people are searching for spirituality, especially [now] when so many are preoccupied by threats to their security. Inner security is no less important than subduing external threats.
Q. Your synagogues—the New York Synagogue in Manhattan and the Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach—are known for, among other things, splendid architecture and superstar cantors. What is your formula for congregational success?
A. It’s been said that I am the rabbi of an Orthodox synagogue with a Conservative congregation and a Reform membership. That is how diverse and eclectic my environment is. Yet this is not new. This is how American Orthodoxy was 30 to 40 years ago. Orthodoxy was all about tolerance and being inclusive, welcoming families from all walks of life.
Q. What achievement are you proudest of in recent years?
A. My foundation produced public service TV spots with respected black leaders…speaking out against anti-Semitism. We Jews cannot fight these battles alone. More than any other people, Jews recognize that there is morality in fighting for other people’s rights…. Our people have been at the forefront of the struggle for civil rights; today we are at the forefront in the fight against genocide in Darfur. We must fight this good fight and we have every reason to expect others to champion the rights of Jews and of Israel. Quid pro quo is one side of the coin. Pure morality and justice of our cause is the other side.