Fired rabbi defends himself against charges of ‘insurrection’ at New York synagogue

NEW YORK (JTA) – In his first public comments since being fired from Park East Synagogue two weeks ago, Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt defended himself against charges of “insurrection” and illegal activity and expressed concern for the future of his former congregation.

Goldschmidt was abruptly fired from Park East, the wealthy Orthodox synagogue on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, by the congregation’s chief rabbi, Arthur Schneier. Schneier’s allies accused Goldschmidt of illegally sharing the email addresses of synagogue members and orchestrating a coup to replace the 91-year-old Schneier, who has run the synagogue for nearly 60 years.

Goldschmidt, 34, had been in the synagogue for a decade.

In an email sent to Park East members on Friday afternoon, shortly before the start of Shabbat, Goldschmidt rejected the allegations against him. Claims that he acted inappropriately by giving members the email list, he wrote, were untrue. Nor did he seek to depose Schneier, he wrote.

He referred to an email sent by four members of the synagogue to the congregation on October 8. The signers had written: “We are concerned about the state of our beloved synagogue and what the future holds.”

Goldschmidt wrote in his letter Friday that that email “was not designed to hurt Rabbi Schneier; it was simply a starting point to discuss the future of Park East. “

“Given these public attacks, I feel I have no choice but to defend not only my reputation, but also the reputation of the signers of the October 8 email,” Goldschmidt wrote. “The accusation made to me that I led an ‘insurrection’ to remove Rabbi Schneier is completely unfounded and personally hurtful given my ten years of loyal service to the rabbi and the synagogue.”

Goldschmidt also denied a previously unreported allegation, which he called a “savage conspiracy theory,” that the men who sent the email on Oct. 8 planned to sell the synagogue’s real estate. And he responded to allegations that the email signers weren’t heavily involved in the synagogue.

Security personnel search people’s bags and clothing as they arrive for an interfaith service at the Park East Synagogue in New York on October 31, 2018 (AP Photo / Seth Wenig).

“Each of those signatories is a blessing in their own right to our community; they are role models and leaders, committed to community, Torah and continuity, ”he wrote. “His only motive was to help build a young, vibrant, growing and prosperous community.”

Goldschmidt also echoed concerns about the synagogue’s future in his email on Friday, though like the signers of the Oct. 8 email, he did not elaborate.

“For a time, there has been concern about the lack of engagement with the youth, the financial situation of the synagogue and the lack of transparency between leadership and members,” he wrote. “To begin to rectify the situation, some members took it upon themselves to communicate and start a conversation.”

Hank Sheinkopf, a veteran political consultant who has acted as a spokesman for the Schneier family, rejected Goldschmidt’s narrative.

“This is his attempt to explain his insubordination and the use of confidential information from the synagogue to support himself and the disruption and insurrection he created,” Sheinkopf told JTA on Friday afternoon, adding that the email ” it was removed just before Shabbat so that no one can respond. ” which shows that this is a well thought out and orchestrated public relations campaign to support their efforts. “

Goldschmidt wrote that the man who fired him “deserves all the praise and praise.” But later, he wrote that his ultimate responsibility is not to Schneier.

“One important thing that I have learned from my dear parents and my years in the Rabbinate is that a rabbi works for the members of his synagogue,” Goldschmidt wrote. “He doesn’t just work for a chief rabbi, the president of the synagogue or the board. It is you, the members, that I serve and have done my best for ten years. “

Goldschmidt did not detail any future plans beyond promising to continue working in New York City. But he asked his readers to stay in Park East.

“I look forward to continuing to serve our beloved Jewish community in New York City in one way or another,” he wrote. “Most importantly, I am very concerned about the future of Park East. I hope that you, its members, remain committed to the synagogue to ensure that it is a warm and welcoming place that understands your spiritual needs as Jews and your desire to have your concerns heard and action taken. “

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