Schindler, Alexander M.

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SCHINDLER, ALEXANDER M.

SCHINDLER, ALEXANDER M. (1925–2000), U.S. Reform rabbi, president of Union of American Hebrew Congregations. Alex Schindler was one of the best-known and most admired Jewish leaders in America in the last quarter of the 20th Century. He was born in Munich, Germany, in 1925, the son of a Yiddish poet and a feisty Jewish businesswoman. The family fled Hitlerism and made its way to New York City and then to Lakewood, New Jersey, where they made their living as chicken farmers. He enrolled at ccny at the age of 16 and enlisted in the army in World War ii, joining the ski troopers and winning a Purple Heart and a Bronze Star for bravery in the battles of Italy. After the war, he decided to become a rabbi, graduating from the Hebrew Union College and then serving seven years as assistant rabbi of Temple Emanuel of Worcester, Massachusetts.

He was known as a bold and successful leader of Reform Judaism but also as the preeminent spokesman of the entire Jewish Community in support of the cause of Israel. In the wider American community, Schindler was a well-known advocate of civil rights, economic justice, and improved interfaith relations. Known as a passionate spokesman of Reform Judaism, Schindler managed to gain the respect and affection of leaders of all denominations, bridging the gulfs of denominational and institutional rivalries. An assertive liberal in both religion and politics, he formed lasting friendships and alliances with traditional and conservative Jews in Israel and in America. He was a warm man, whose word could be trusted and thus even those who opposed him on ideological grounds never personalized those differences. He enjoyed a deep personal friendship with the long time leader of Agudath Israel in the United States Rabbi Moshe Sherer, though the two men could not have been further apart ideologically.

Reform Judaism is unique among American religious denominations in that the leader of the movement is the professional president of the congregational body rather than the head of a rabbinical school. As president of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations (now called Union for Reform Judaism), he significantly enlarged the membership of the Union and the scope of its program, lifting the Reform Jewish movement to the largest branch of American Judaism. As leader of the Union, he envisioned and brought into reality a Liberal Torah Commentary, the first such publication in America. He pioneered a revolutionary outreach program, in which congregations reach out to interfaith couples to make the non-Jewish partner comfortable and to encourage that partner to convert. He spearheaded a campaign of gender equality, transforming the American synagogue and the Reform rabbinate. He led a campaign for recognition of gay rights in the movement and in the rabbinate. He broke new and controversial ground – both within and outside the Reform movement – by championing the doctrine of patrilineal descent so that authentic Jewish identity would derive not only from a Jewish mother but equally from a Jewish father. Though differing with halakhah, the Reform position was in some ways more stringent than halakhah in that the identity was not automatic but had to be acknowledged and affirmed. He championed social justice, demanding economic justice for the weak and the poor even in the face of Reagan social cuts. He strengthened the work of the Religious Action Center in Washington and was a crucial part of efforts to establish a religious action center in Israel as well. He pushed for the creation of a Reform Zionism, leading to the creation of arza, the Reform Zionist association and a vital Reform Zionist movement. As an educator, he succeeded in gaining the approval of a pilot project for Reform Jewish day schools, which now includes seventeen full-time Reform day schools in the U.S. and Canada.

He became the best-known American Jewish leader of that era when he was elected chairman of the Presidents Conference of Major Jewish Organizations, the authoritative assembly of American Jewish leadership in support of Israel, during an especially tumultuous time. Becoming chairman in 1976, he was at his post when Menachem *Begin was elected prime minister of Israel. Shattering the long-established partnership between Israel's Labor governments and American Jewry, Begin's election was a shock to American Jewry. Schindler, a lifelong liberal and dove, publicly embraced Begin, a man with whose views he disagreed, as the elected prime minister of Israel's democracy, and demanded that the Jewish establishment give Begin a fair chance and not delegitimize him at the outset. This led to a deep personal friendship, in which Begin consulted with Schindler at many pivotal moments, including on the eve of Camp David and peace with Egypt, honored Schindler in Jerusalem, and brought him as his guest on official visits to Egypt and other countries. Despite this deep personal friendship, which endured until Begin's death, Schindler did not refrain from advocating a two-state partition, condemning Israel's invasion of Lebanon, and demanding equal respect for all branches of Judaism in Israeli life.

In all his life, Schindler prided himself on being, like his father before him, an ohev yisrael, a lover of the Jewish people. Although he lifted and strengthened the Reform Jewish movement, he took most pride in knitting together the fractious strands of Jewish life and Jewish unity.

[Albert Vorspan (2nd ed.)]