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HamptonsWatch: Shul in the Sun

The Rabbi to the stars expands his reach.

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First McDonald's. Then TGI Friday's. Now a new franchise is serving up healthy portions of Torah with side orders of guilt. Though Rabbi Marc Schneier flinches at the term franchise, that's just what he's doing, opening a branch of his orthodox Hampton Synagogue in Palm Beach so he can follow his flock south for the winter.

Schneier -- who has earned the nickname "rabbi to the stars" for an East End following that includes Steven Spielberg, Wendy Wasserstein, and Marvin Hamlisch -- is offering year-round Judaism for congregants who divide their time between the Eastern Seaboard's premier gold coasts. "If our congregants can't come to us all year long, then we will go to them," says Schneier, who recently purchased a $3.8 million plot of land and hopes to hire architects by October. The temple should be ready by 2001, with Schneier taking charge from November to April, though he plans to hold makeshift services by late fall.

But another Florida Jewish leader is calling the project blasphemous. Palm Beach Orthodox Synagogue's Rabbi Moshe Scheiner accuses the influential, well-financed Schneier of trying to steal away his worshipers. "Almost every single member of our temple has been contacted to donate money or attend planning meetings," says Scheiner, adding that the whole scheme smacks of religious carpetbagging. "Usually, it's a case of a congregation looking for a rabbi," says Scheiner, whose temple is just half a block from Schneier's site. "Here, you have a rabbi coming to look for a congregation."

Schneier vehemently denies the accusations. "We've never asked anybody for money," he says. "And we're definitely not siphoning parishioners." His position is that the Palm Beach synagogue will attract nomadic Hamptonites who haven't been to temple in years. "We're going down there to continue the congregation" -- which started as a ten-man living-room quorum in 1991 and now attracts a 600-person capacity crowd for Saturday services.

Though this may seem like a White Castle going up against a long-established Burger King, Schneier sees his mission as Heaven-sent. The Florida franchise will be located on Palm Beach's Sunset Avenue -- the same street name of the Hamptons location. "It's more than just a coincidence," says Schneier. "A higher power's trying to tell us something."


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