Rabbi Alexander Schindler (1925-2000) thought he was going to be an engineer. But when he saw Jews emerging from Dachau in Germany—a concentration camp—at the end of World War II, his plans changed. He returned to the United States to a life long pursuit of religion and social studies, becoming one of the most prominent Jewish figures of the century. He became a creating force in Reform Judaism—leading the movement for over a quarter of a century—and innovatively offered Judaism to whoever might be interested.
Schindler was born on October 4, 1925, in Munich, Germany, to a Hasidic, Yiddish poet, Eliezer Schindler, and his wife, Sali. When Schindler was 12 years old, the boy and his family fled Germany and the Nazi regime and settled in New York City around 1937.
Schindler studied engineering until he enrolled as a United States soldier in World War II. He found his way into the Alpine Patrol ski troops in Europe as a corporal and said at the National Museum of American Jewish History web-site, "We fought our way through the Apennines." Schindler distinguished himself in war with three combat ribbons for bravery, a Purple Heart, and a Bronze Star.
Schindler was overseas near the Yugoslav border when the war ended. A forward observer for the artillery, he borrowed a jeep from his captain and went to Germany to observe what had happened. Curious about his relatives in Germany, he traveled to Munich to find them. He ended up in Dachau, where the concentration camp was just releasing many of the Jewish prisoners. Schindler said at the Jewish History website, "It subconsciously had a great impact on my life's development."
When Schindler returned to the United States, he dropped his engineering studies to pursue social studies and social sciences as well as Jewish studies, Jewish history, Yiddish, and Hebrew. He entered City College (College of the City of New York) and graduated in 1949. Meanwhile, he involved himself at the Jewish Theological Seminary, Hebrew Union College—the Reform Judaism movement's seminary—and the New School. He was studying society and Judaism "in [an] … effort, I suppose, to find out why [the Holocaust] happened," Schindler shared at the Jewish History website.
In 1953, Schindler graduated from Hebrew Union College's Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati, Ohio, with a Masters in Hebrew Letters and a rabbinical ordination. He took on his first congregation in 1953—Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Massachusetts—and spent six years there honing his Reform convictions. Schindler met 24-year-old Rhea Rosenblum during his appointment in Worcester. He proposed marriage to her the day that they met, but she left, as previously planned, for Israel soon after. Upon her return, Schindler and Rosenblum married on September 29, 1956.
The Schindlers moved to Boston in 1959, where Schindler founded the New England Coalition of Reform Synogoues, propelling him into leadership in the national Reform Movement. Soon after relocation to New York, Schindler was appointed director of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (UAHC) New England regional office. By 1963, Schindler was the national director of education for the UAHC in Manhattan; by 1967, he was the vice president of the UAHC; and by 1973, he was the president. Schindler would serve in this position for more than 20 years and use it as a springboard to reach many Americans and many Jews worldwide.
The Interfaith Family website noted, Schindler "[viewed] Judaism as a dynamic faith that evolved through its dialogue with tradition." Schindler was a pioneer for justice and equality both inside and outside of the Jewish community. He helped carve a place for Reform Jews in the Jewish communities both in the United States and worldwide. He helped imbue Reform Judaism with respectability with his friend-winning personality, while at the same time making reforms that were often controversial and anti-mainstream.
Schindler fought for the equal treatment of Jewish gays and lesbians, helping secure a place for them in Reform Judaism temples. He worked hard for women's rights in the temple, as well. Early during his time of leadership with the UAHC, the first woman rabbi was ordained. Schindler also fought for women's rights outside the Jewish faith. He had a passion for people with physical handicaps and worked to have hearing assistance devices installed in temples, as well as other modifications to aid the physically handicapped. Schindler also worked for the causes of the poor and those inhibited by racism.
Most importantly, Schindler helped to enlarge the sphere of Jewish outreach, not only through his work with the gay and lesbian communities, but through outreach to traditionally shunned members of the "Jewish family." In 1978, Schindler enacted the "Outreach" program which targeted spouses of Jews, aiming to have them accepted— and their Jewish spouses restored—to the Jewish faith. This move, along with others, reversed more-than-500-year-old traditions against proselytizing. Schindler was known to welcome any honest soul into the Jewish way of life. One of Schindler's most controversial actions was to reach out to patrilineal descendants of Jews. Traditionally, only matrilineal descendency was accepted as true Jewishness, but Schindler would embrace any child of a Jew who was given a proper Jewish education.
An online Interfaith Family article claimed that "Schindler built the [Reform Judaism] movement into one of the most vigorous forces in American religious life. He was renowned for his unrelenting commitment to issues of peace, social justice, and equality." Juli Cragg Hilliard quoted Schindler in Sarasota Herald Tribune as having said, "Social activism is part of God's mandate to congregations." Schindler certainly took his own advice seriously and ended up changing the face of Judaism in America.
In the political arena, Schindler was deeply involved. He said to Hilliard, "Religion and politics are inextricable." In the late 1970s he served as Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. The coalition led Jewish bodies to act as a liaison between the United States and Israeli governments. Schindler also became a confidant of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. His work with the Isreali peace process led him to be awarded the Bublick Prize of Hebrew University. Schindler also worked to get Switzerland and other countries to return property stolen from Jews during the holocaust. Schindler claimed that the displaced Jews needed restoration as a matter of principle but also to rectify the fact that many of them were living lives of "destitution." Begin was quoted on the Interfaith Family website calling Schindler one "who has written his name into the pages of the Jewish people's story of freedom, dignity, and strength."
Schindler authored and oversaw the publication of the first Torah commentary in the Reform tradition, The Torah: A Modern Commentary. He also served on various committees and organizations, including president of the International Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, vice president of the World Jewish Congress, Co-Chairman on the Commission on East-West Relations for the World Jewish Congress, representative for various sects of Judaism regarding peace in the Middle East, and lay leader for the Memorial Foundation. He also acted to further the work of Reform Judaism's social program and the Reform Judaism Reform Action Center in Washington, D.C. His work for Jewish equal rights culminated in the founding of the Association of Reform Zionists of America (ARZA). A Jewish National Fund forest of 500,000 trees in Israel bears his name. Schindler retired from many of his committee duties in the 1990s—including the presidency of the UAHC in 1996—but maintained an involved schedule. He said to Hilliard, "Retirement, I think, is a problem only for people who have forgotten how to start anew."
Schindler had a history of plaguing cardiac complaints and suffered two heart attacks, one in the 1960s and one in the 1980s while visiting Masada, Isreal. He died at his Westport, Connecticut, home on November 15, 2000, from a coronary arrest in his sleep. He died before waking. Schindler had recently celebrated his 75th birthday and was still serving as president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and vice president of the World Jewish Congress. He left behind him his wife of 44 years, Rhea Rosenblum Schindler; children Elisa Ruth, Debra Lee, Jonathan David, Joshua Michael, and Rabbi Judith Rachel Schindler; and 9 grandchildren.
Sarasota Herald Tribune, January 17, 1997.
"Interfaith Family" http://www.interfaithfamily.com/article/issue49/schindler.phtml (February 10, 2003).
"Jewish Bulletin News," http://www.jewishsf.com/bk001117/obschindler.shtml (February 10, 2003).
"National Museum of American Jewish History," http://www.nmajh.org/exhibitions/galut/schindler.htm (February 10, 2003).
"Rabbi Alexander Schindler, 1925-2000," http://www.obits.com/schindleralex.html (February 10, 2003).
"To the Memory: Rabbiner Alexander Schindler," http://www.beth-shalom.de/2000/12/schindler.htm (February 10, 2003). □