Union of American Hebrew Congregations


In his twenty-three years as president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler has transformed the Reform movement and emerged as perhaps the leading spokesman for American Jewry.

by Albert Vorspan

It was 1973, the opening day of the UAHC Biennial Assembly in New York City. UAHC President Rabbi Maurice N. Eisendrath was preparing to deliver his final state of the Union address when suddenly he died of a heart attack. Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, his designated successor, was thus swept into office, facing an immediate and difficult decision.

Conferring with his stunned top staff colleagues, Rabbi Schindler was decisive: the convention would proceed as scheduled, and Rabbi Eisendrath's long address would be delivered word for word by Rabbi Schindler. Eisendrath's speech was a fire and brimstone denunciation of President Richard Nixon for his coverup of Watergate. The speech was studded with barn-burning rhetoric, stopping just short of a call for impeachment of the president of the United States. Eisendrath had built a reputation for outspoken state of the Union challenges. Several staff members urged Alex not to read the most incendiary paragraphs. Why not preserve the essence of Eisendrath's case without inflaming emotions already raw from the personal tragedy of his fatal heart attack? Schindler refused to alter the speech. "I will read it as he prepared it, every single word, no editing. We owe him that." And so Schindler did.

During his own presidency, Rabbi Schindler maintained unremitting support for the social action program of the UAHC, which, under Eisendrath, had reached its climax with the establishment of the Religious Action Center in Washington. Schindler threw his full support behind the work of the Social Action Commission, and he identified himself with the liberal agenda of the day, including women's rights (especially the ordination of women), Soviet Jewry, civil rights, world peace, opposition to the death penalty, nuclear disarmament, a Marshall Plan for the poor, and gay rights. On some issues he took stands that provoked as much controversy as had Eisendrath's positions. He railed against the moral disaster of Reaganomics at a time when the new president was riding high in the saddle of popularity. His undisguised support for gay rights - including gay rabbis - stirred heavy opposition within and without Reform ranks.

However, while Eisendrath's positions frequently led to angry division in the Union leadership and even withdrawal of some congregations in protest, Schindler somehow managed to address similarly charged issues without appearing to be righteous or polarizing. Where Maurice was admired and respected but often feared and resented, Alex was respected and also loved. His leadership was characterized by immense personal warmth and self-deprecating humor. While many congregants disagreed with his views, almost to a person they liked and cherished him. Where Maurice's oratory was stern and prophetic, Alex's was poetic, often anecdotal, reflecting on his relations with his wife, Rhea, and their five children, or relating a poignant Yiddish poem or a tender chasidic tale. Rhea's irreverent charm added to the Schindlers' popularity.

WHILE SCHINDLER continued Eisendrath's commitment to a strong social justice role for Reform Judaism, he broke new ground in many other major program areas. As the director of the education department, he had fought for higher standards, including the establishment of day schools, an idea that had been anathema to Eisendrath, who felt that they would compromise public education, damage separation of church and state, and ghettoize American Jewry. As president, Schindler persuaded the UAHC leadership to support a modest pilot effort, which has grown into a network of seventeen full-time Reform Jewish day schools across North America.

Similarly, Schindler pushed for a stronger emphasis on Israel, culminating in the creation of ARZA and ARZA CANADA, the Reform Zionist associations devoted to strengthening Reform institutions in the Jewish state. Alex greatly enlarged the movement's youth programs through the North American Federation of Temple Youth, which sponsors more trips to Israel than does any other organization. He also presided over the development of a college program to serve Jewish youngsters on campus.

Among Schindler's greatest and proudest achievements was his conception of a Torah commentary from a Reform perspective. Published in 1981 and edited by Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, The Torah: A Modern Commentary has sold more than 200,000 copies.

Convinced that the Union's fundamental task is strengthening the individual synagogue, Alex pushed for a greatly expanded regional structure and a synagogue management staff to help temples. During the years of Schindler's service, the UAHC roster grew from 400 congregations in 1973 to nearly 900 in 1995. Reform became the largest and fastest growing branch of Judaism with about one million members. Indeed, Reform is the only liberal religious group in America that has gained in membership in the last quarter of the twentieth century.

But Alex was also a prescient pioneer, anticipating tomorrow's crises today. In December 1978, at a meeting of the Union's Board of Trustees in Houston, Schindler called on the Reform movement to reach out to the non-Jewish spouses of interfaith marriages and to the "unchurched" in general, encouraging them to convert.

Outreach reversed the 500-year-old tradition of discouraging converts - and it was characteristic of Schindler's propensity to see the big issue just beyond the horizon. By the 1970s, American Jewry was experiencing a rapidly increasing intermarriage rate. Schindler saw that intermarriage was no longer a disaster that happened to somebody else. It was happening in most families and, for the most part, Jewish parents were no longer willing to lose their children and future grandchildren by banishing the offending married child. This profound cultural change called for a Jewishly compassionate response.

TO SCHINDLER, outreach is not acquiescence to interfaith marriage; it is an affirmation of Judaism. Outreach is a means by which we can reach out to the non-Jewish spouse, welcoming him or her into a warm and inviting Jewish environment, demonstrating that Judaism is a universal faith that is available to anyone who sincerely wishes to join the community and assume its obligations. In his initial proposal to the UAHC Board of Trustees, Schindler did not restrict his outreach focus to interfaith couples; he projected his scope to encompass the millions of "religiously unpreferenced" Americans in search of a spiritual anchor. He was convinced that thousands of spiritual seekers, adrift from their religious moorings, would turn to Judaism if given the opportunity, and the infusion would revitalize Jewish life. Although the UAHC Board saw this "plank" of the 1978 outreach proposal as excessively ambitious and put it on the back burner, the basic Outreach program as outlined by President Schindler was adopted. (At the 1993 UAHC biennial, Alex renewed his call for a Reform "missionary" program.)

Indeed, the Outreach program has revolutionized Jewish life. It has brought tens of thousands of Jews-by-choice into our midst. Introduction to Judaism programs are now offered in many cities, and Outreach coordinators have been added to the staff of each of the Union's nine regional offices. The best measure of the efficacy of the Outreach program is that other denominations in Judaism, after having first dismissed the program either as an opportunistic device to repopulate our declining ranks or as a left-handed endorsement of intermarriage itself, ended up emulating Outreach in their own programs.

EVEN AS SCHINDLER promoted outreach, he just as tenaciously urged the movement to fortify the inner life of every Jew. In pushing for "inreach," spiritual self-actualization, he said, "What purpose is outreach, pray tell, if there is nothing within?" Repeatedly, he has called upon Reform Jews to make Judaism meaningful in their lives.

The same pattern of trailblazing marked Schindler's leadership in the adoption of patrilineal descent as an authentic basis for Jewish identity. Rabbi Schindler felt that gender equality meant that it was wrong for the Jewish identity of a child born into an interfaith family to be derived from only the maternal line. His studies also persuaded him that matrilineal descent did not always prevail in Jewish history; it had emerged historically in response to given circumstances. Reform, as an evolving faith geared to adaptation and change, therefore could and should assert gender equality. Schindler's practical sense also made him well aware of the many injustices that slavish adherence to matrilineal descent was causing children of a Jewish father and non-Jewish mother. He, therefore, advocated equality between patrilineal and matrilineal descent in determining the religious identity of such children as long as they are raised and educated as Jews.

As in most basic innovations taken by Reform, the response by the other movements, especially the Orthodox, was apocalyptic and hyperbolic. The sundering of Jewish unity, the withdrawal of Reform into a separate sect, the destruction of Reform Judaism in Israel - these and other catastrophic consequences were predicted if Reform did not back down on this issue. Many of these hyperventilations also came from some Reform rabbis, particularly those in Israel, some of whom urged postponement of any formal action, pleading instead for consultations with the leaders of all branches before taking such a historic and irreversible step.

Rabbi Schindler replied that the same dire warnings had been sounded every time Reform adopted a bold new initiative - Friday evening Shabbat services, sermons in the vernacular, one-day Jewish festival observances, confirmation, Sunday school, the Union Prayer Book, women rabbis, gay rabbis - and that most of these initiatives had ended up emulated, at least by Conservative and Reconstructionist Judaism. To Schindler, Reform spells change and modernity. Reform betrays itself if it shrinks from moral decisions and needed innovations out of fear of controversy.

Alex Schindler reached the summit of American Jewish leadership when he was elected chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, the authoritative address for American Jewry in all matters relating to United States policy toward Israel. Schindler's tenure (1976-1978) occurred during one of the most tumultuous and problematic moments in Israel's history: the election of Menachem Begin as prime minister. After a full generation of Labor party primacy, resulting in warm affinity between American Jews and Labor, Begin's Likud party triumphed in 1978. Most American Jews reacted with shock and indignation. Begin, the former terrorist? The hard-line right-winger? How could American Jewry possibly accept such a regime? How would Washington be able to relate to a Begin-led Israel?

Schindler, a lifelong liberal and dove, dispatched telegrams to the leaders of every Jewish organization in the Conference of Presidents, reminding them that Israel is a democracy and the Israeli people have made their choice. It is the obligation of American Jewry to sustain Israeli democracy and not seek to undermine or delegitimize it, he said. Through strong personal leadership, Schindler aborted an incipient revolt. He and the late Yehuda Hellman, then director of the Conference, flew to Israel and met with Begin. Schindler promised the prime minister that American Jews would give his government a chance and not discredit it. Schindler's powerful leadership prevailed.

Begin never forgot Schindler's role in rallying American Jewry behind the duly elected government of Israel. Indeed, an intense personal friendship developed between the American rabbi and the Israeli prime minister. Begin consulted with Schindler on the eve of the historic Camp David conference and honored Alex at a lavish state dinner in Jerusalem, at which he hailed him for "his courageous and outstanding leadership" and as "one who has written his name into the pages of the Jewish people's story of freedom, dignity, and strength." Although Begin and Schindler sometimes disagreed sharply on policy issues, their mutual affection never waned. They remained close friends until Begin's death.

SCHINDLER WAS SOMETIMES accused of having been preempted by Israeli right-wingers. But he never checked his conscience at the border. He blasted the war in Lebanon, calling publicly for the firing of Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon. In a powerful protest that made headlines worldwide, Schindler publicly condemned Rabin's threat to put down the intifada by "breaking the bones, beatings, and force." He repudiated Shamir's concept of a Greater Israel and the obsessive proliferation of settlements. Above all, as president of the UAHC, he repeatedly raised his voice, both publicly and privately, to demand full religious rights in Israel for non-Orthodox branches of Judaism, warning that we will no longer be "beggars at the gates of Jerusalem," objects of disrespect in the Jewish state.

Under Schindler's leadership, the Reform movement established its Israel Religious Action Center in Jerusalem to mobilize Israeli public opinion behind the values of pluralism and tolerance. Within Israel, the views of Rabbi Schindler are taken with utmost seriousness and respect, although many who welcome his ideas do not know he is a Reform rabbi.

What kind of childhood prepared Alex for a life of Jewish service? He was born in Munich, Germany in 1925 to Sali and Eliezer Schindler. His father, Eliezer, was a Yiddish poet of some repute. His mother - strong and feisty - was a successful businesswoman. The Schindler family's fortunes changed with the advent of Nazism. To escape the Gestapo, Eliezer Schindler fled to Switzerland in 1933. For the next five years Sali Schindler supported Alex and his sister, Eva, with profits from her mail-order business. She secretly channeled funds into anti-Nazi activities while setting profits aside for the time when she and the children could escape and rejoin her husband in exile.

The wait turned out to be harrowing. Sali had to entrust her two children to a German noblewoman, who later spirited them across the border to Switzerland. Sali left Munich disguised as a Carmelite nun, was smuggled into Poland, and, with the help of the Belzer Rebbe, traveled to Hungary for an ecumenical conference. She arrived in Budapest alone and penniless. Desperate to reach her husband in Switzerland, she tried to make a collect call from a public phone booth. At that time, however, there was no international telephone connection between Switzerland and Hungary. A man who happened to overhear her appeal approached her and asked, "Did I hear you say Schindler? Eliezer Schindler? I just left him in Switzerland. In fact, he gave me some money to attend my niece's wedding." The man insisted on giving Sali the money for her fare to Switzerland. Thus was the Schindler family reunited.

ALEX WAS TWELVE WHNE HE ARRIVED IN he arrived in America with his family. He knew barely a word of English. Shy, withdrawn, and traumatized by the Nazi terror, he gave few indications of the warm and charismatic personality that would come to characterize him in adulthood. At sixteen he enrolled at CCNY, where he managed to learn English and master his studies. Later, the Schindlers moved from the West Side of Manhattan to Lakewood, New Jersey, where they became chicken farmers, a not uncommon occupation for Jews arriving in an America gripped by the Great Depression.

At age eighteen, Alex enlisted in the United States Army, becoming a ski trooper. He served in three campaigns in Italy, earning the Purple Heart for wounds received in battle and a Bronze Star Medal for bravery in action. His military experience helped him overcome his shyness and compelled him to examine what he wanted to do with his life. He decided to pursue a career in the rabbinate, inspired by his father's lifelong example as an ohev Yisrael, a "lover of Israel," and his mother's fierce determination that he aspire grandly.

His first full-time rabbinic post was as assistant rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts. His warm relationship with the senior rabbi, Joseph Klein, and with the congregation resulted in a mutual admiration for six years. To this day Alex looks upon Worcester as his spiritual home base.

Schindler's early childhood experiences may have much to do with his unusual capacity to identify with people in pain. His passionate championship of gay rights, for example, stems not only from a generally liberal political orientation but also from his acute awareness that gays suffered humiliation and terror at the hands of the Nazis.

TO ALEX, K'LAL YISRAEL IS not just a slogan. He believes passionately in the solidarity and unity of the Jewish people. Warm, humorous, generous, fun-loving, Schindler has succeeded in knitting together all the diverse segments of Jewish life behind a common goal: Israel's well-being.

For his service to the Jewish people, Rabbi Schindler was awarded the coveted Bublik Prize of the Hebrew University in 1978, an honor bestowed earlier on Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion and President Harry S. Truman, among others. He has served as a vice president of the World Jewish Congress, a member of the Governing Body of the Jewish Agency, secretary of the Joint Distribution Committee, and a vice president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture. He has received honorary doctorates from several American colleges and universities, including, most recently, the University of South Carolina as well as Lafayette, Hamilton, and Holy Cross colleges. In Israel, 500,000 trees have been planted by the Jewish National Fund in the Schindler Forest to honor, in perpetuity, one of the Jewish people's most devoted servants - ohev Yisrael par excellence.

Albert Vorspan is UAHC vice president emeritus. This article is adapted from his Introduction to The Jewish Condition: Essays in Honor of Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler

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