(New York Jewish Week via JTA) – Rabbi Benjamin Goldschmidt, who made headlines when he was abruptly fired from his position at Manhattan’s swanky Park East Synagogue, has officially launched a new congregation.
In a sermon Goldschmidt gave this past Shabbat, which he also posted to Medium on Tuesday, the rabbi announced that the name of his new congregation — which he’s starting with his wife, journalist Avital Chizhik-Goldschmidt — will be “Altneu,” a portmanteau of the Yiddish words for “old” and “new.”
“The truth is, this is the closest I will ever get to feeling what it means to give birth to a child,” he wrote.
The Goldschmidts started the congregation informally in the fall of 2021, shortly after the 34-year-old rabbi was unceremoniously dismissed from his post as assistant rabbi at Park East, a venerable Modern Orthodox congregation, in October, after a decade working there.
The firing followed what one well-placed Park East congregant described as an attempted “coup” by Goldschmidt, itself the result of “simmering tensions” between Goldschmidt and the synagogue’s senior rabbi, Arthur Schneier, 91. Goldschmidt denied the accusation.
Goldschmidt’s supporters in turn said he was a talented rabbi who was popular with younger members, as the New York Jewish Week reported at the time. Some 70 members signed a petition saying they were “shocked and disheartened” by his firing.
Shortly after the brouhaha broke, the Goldschmidts began hosting Shabbat services in the neighborhood. In November, the New York Jewish Week reported that over 80 people RSVPed to an invitation to attend Shabbat services, some of them members of Park East. Chitzik-Goldschmidt said there ended up being over 200 in attendance that weekend. On a recent Shabbat, they welcomed Dr. Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the United States.
According to the shul’s new website, the congregation meets on Shabbat Friday evenings and Saturday mornings at “unique venues” on the Upper East Side. Photos and videos posted online by the couple show the Explorer’s Club, a five-story mansion at 46 East 70th St., which Goldschmidt also mentions by name in his Medium post.
In a tweet Wednesday announcing the new venture, the rabbi and his spouse are seen entering wrought-iron gates, waving the viewer inside. “Shehecheyanu,” he writes, referring to the blessing commonly used when doing something for the first time. “Welcome to the Altneu. On the old and the new. The dreams — and the conditions — of a 21st century Diaspora synagogue.”
“I feel like it is a tremendous opportunity to start a new synagogue in Manhattan; it’s not something that happens too often,” Goldschmidt told The New York Jewish Week. “It’s given me an opportunity to rethink many things that were taken for granted. We now have an ability to figure out what format will work best for the next century.”
For example, Goldschmidt said he plans to have community members introduce the Torah portion each week in a sermon — a job traditionally assigned to the rabbi — in order to allow his congregants to connect and learn with both the text and their community in a more personal manner.
The name, as Goldschmidt explained in his article, is a homage to the historic Altneuschul in Prague, the oldest operating synagogue in Europe. The congregation’s mission, he wrote, is “to renew and reinvigorate its Judaism while still building on and learning from traditions and ways of life in the past.”
The name also has a Hebrew meaning: “al-tenai,” which means “on condition.” “[T]he synagogue will only thrive on the conditions of kindness, respect, and unity, among other values,” he writes.
In an Instagram caption announcing the name, Chizhik-Goldschmidt described the diversity of people attending the new congregation.
“I saw a Hasidish Jew from Williamsburg sitting near a Broadway actor; a young investigative journalist next to a group of long-time Upper East Side ladies; Jews who never went to shul before regularly next to Haredi Jerusalemites next to a beautiful young couple (Mexican-Persian & Russian) celebrating their wedding,” she wrote.
“In the last several years, we’ve had time to really think deeply about what communities need more of — especially in urban areas like Manhattan, that have unique needs and unique voices,” Chizhik-Goldschmidt told The New York Jewish Week. “We’re taking the learnings of the years we’ve accumulated and trying to put them into practice here.”
Goldschmidt is the son of Rabbi Pinchas Goldschmidt, the chief rabbi of Moscow, and has studied at prestigious yeshivas in Israel and the United States. He does not have a university degree, which defenders of his firing said was a reason that he was not in line to succeed Schneier as Park East’s senior rabbi.
At Park East, Rabbi Goldschmidt focused on outreach to the Upper East Side’s overlapping communities of young families and Russian-speaking Jews.
At Altneu, he plans to continue outreach towards young Jews in the formative periods of their life. “Thousands and thousands of young, talented Jews from all over the world pass by [New York] a year, five years, 10 or 15,” he said. “But these are usually the years where they get their first job, where they choose who they marry, have a kid, and choose schools. Even as they’re passing through the Big Apple, if we could catch people and impact their lives and be a home for them, I think it’d be a great accomplishment.”