(New York Jewish Week) — The ongoing search for a successor to Park East Synagogue’s 93-year-old rabbi has hit a fresh hurdle, as the rabbinic search committee has been disbanded and another of the congregation’s rabbis has left his job.
For more than a year, the prominent Orthodox congregation on Manhattan’s East Side has sought someone to succeed Rabbi Arthur Schneier, a Holocaust survivor who has led the synagogue for six decades. But none of the prospective candidates has yet panned out, while at the same time multiple assistant rabbis have exited the synagogue.
The synagogue suggested in a statement that another of its assistant rabbis could be the heir apparent. But Park East members worry that the turmoil is endangering the future of their storied synagogue, which has hosted a pope and a string of other dignitaries as Schneier has shaped the synagogue into a stage for his human rights activism.
In February, Schneier told the New York Jewish Week, “When it comes to the selection of a rabbi, it is entirely up to the membership.” But multiple synagogue members said the rabbinic search committee disbanded after a top British rabbi withdrew from consideration in February and Schneier is now running the search himself.
“Members feel disenfranchised,” said one Park East member who is familiar with the synagogue’s management and, like others in the community, asked to remain anonymous for fear of ruining their relationships in the congregation.
“It is very difficult,” the member said. “We’ve had Rabbi Schneier here for a very long time and many people do love him very much, and it’s hard for them to imagine someone else taking that place.”
Some are sympathetic to Schneier’s position. Reuven Kahane, a longtime member at Park East who often delivers sermons at the synagogue, told the New York Jewish Week that “Rabbi Schneier has flaws and makes mistakes — like everyone else.”
“But who has done so much for so many?” Kahane asked. “The rabbi literally watched Kristallnacht, then turned that tragedy into saving Jewish lives for 70 years.”
The uncertainty began in late 2021, when the synagogue abruptly fired Schneier’s popular assistant rabbi, Benjamin Goldschmidt, whom Schneier’s allies accused of trying to stage a coup. Four months later, the synagogue announced a search for a “worthy successor” to Schneier. Goldschmidt has since founded his own popular congregation, called the Altneu, in the same neighborhood.
In February, Park East appeared close to hiring Rabbi Yitzchak Schochet, who leads a large synagogue in London. But a question-and-answer period at the synagogue following a lecture by Schochet devolved into argument when a member publicly protested the rabbi’s views about same-sex marriage. Schochet eventually withdrew from the rabbinic search.
Now, Rabbi Elchanan Poupko — who has taught at the synagogue’s affiliated day school since 2015, and who has served as the synagogue’s interim assistant rabbi since last year — confirmed that he is leaving the synagogue. Members said Poupko was well liked and was once floated as a prospective successor to Schneier. When he assumed the assistant rabbi role, he posted on LinkedIn, “May it be the will [of Hashem] that … the Divine Presence, rest in our work.”
Both Poupko and the synagogue attributed his departure to his physician wife’s work as a professor of neurology at the University of Connecticut. Poupko said “the schlep is too much” between the two workplaces.
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“We wish Rabbi Poupko, his wife Rachel, and their daughters the best in their new home in Connecticut,” the synagogue said in a statement. “Their contributions to our community have been greatly appreciated and they will be missed.”
The synagogue’s statement added that it has asked another assistant rabbi, David Flatto, to serve as “acting Associate Rabbi.” Flatto previously served as a rabbi of another prominent Upper East Side Orthodox synagogue, Kehilath Jeshurun, and is a professor of law and Jewish philosophy at Hebrew University in Jerusalem.
His biography on the Park East website says he is at the synagogue “until he resumes his academic responsibilities at Hebrew University in the fall,” but members told the New York Jewish Week that they understand Schneier wants to keep Flatto on as his successor.
“He is well known and respected by the Park East community having served as our Assistant Rabbi in 2022,” the synagogue’s statement said. “He exhibited warmth and caring in his outreach and pastoral duties during Shabbat, High Holiday services, and during life cycle events.”
Two members of the disbanded committee declined to comment, and the synagogue’s statement did not address an inquiry about the committee’s status, saying, “Our search for a full-time candidate is ongoing. We will continue to engage our membership in this process.”
The member who is familiar with Park East management said the search committee “chose to disband themselves” after Schochet dropped out. The member added that the committee members, “frankly, did not feel that they had any more interest in putting more effort based on the fact that the last person didn’t go so well.”
Now, members say, Schneier and a close circle of confidantes are spearheading the search.
“He’s holding on to the last vestiges of power, like an older relative who just doesn’t know when to hang it up,” said another member who is active at the synagogue and who also asked not to be named. “He’s a good man, but this is just pathetic.”
Correction (May 25): This story has been corrected to remove a section about an alleged incident on Shemini Atzeret that subsequent reporting called into question.