Focus on Issues: from Generation to Generation; Reform Leader Hands over Reins

The walls of the modest office with the spectacular view of Central Park are bare now.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler has taken down the school photos of his five children and the picture of the Western Wall, and has relegated them to boxes in the corner.

The man who led the Reform movement for 23 years and turned it into the largest synagogue movement in American life is vacating the Union of American Hebrew Congregations’ presidential office to make room for his successor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie.

Sitting at his now-bare desk, Schindler is as he has been since he stepped up to lead the Reform movement’s flagship organization – thoughtful, philosophical and strongly opinionated.

Schindler leaves as the movement is in the early stages of re-inventing itself, while Yoffie tries to fashion a future for Reform Judaism that is focused more on the core values of Jewish living than the past has been.

The central message the new president delivered in his first official sermon, at his installation at Manhattan’s Temple Shaary Tefila on June 8, was “Torah, Torah, Torah. And our program will be: educate, educate, educate.”

When he stepped up to the presidency in 1973, Schindler became a lightning rod for controversial positions and policies.

Under his stewardship, the programs and policies of the UAHC focused largely on the liberal aspects of liberal Judaism.

At Schindler’s behest, beginning in 1978, the UAHC launched an outreach program to intermarried and unaffiliated Jews that is unmatched in scope in the Jewish community.

The movement also opened its doors to female rabbis and cantors as well as to gay and lesbian Jews. It develped formal mechanisms for social action through the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has offices in Washington and Jerusalem, and the New York-based Association of Reform Zionists of America.

In the process, the UAHC grew under Schindler’s tenure from 400 member congregation to 870. In the past two decades, the number of of congregations connected to Reform temples has also grown by about 25 percent, to some 1.25 million people, said the retiring president.

In speech after speech over the past year as president-elect, Yoffie has made clear his intent not to neglect any of the programs that reach out from the Jewish community, whether through social action or attention to the needs of intermarried families.

But he has already developed new departments and programs indicating that his vision of Reform Judaism will be emphasizing the “Judaism” in liberal Judaism.

Already in place at the UAHC is a new department of Adult Jewish Growth, which will establish a network of Reform study retreats targeting different populations, from young unaffiliated Jews to senior citizens to families with young children.

Yoffie is also expanding the UAHC’s education department. The department of interreligious affairs has been axed and the social action budget has been cut back, though veteran liberal activist and commentator Leonard Fein has been hired part time to run the UAHC’s social action commission.

Schindler leaves the UAHC with the organization indelibly marked with a very personal imprint that has, at times, proven revolutionary within Reform Judaism and within the larger American Jewish community.

He put outreach to intermarried and unaffiliated Jews at the top of the Reform movement’s agenda. Today, with all its complex ramifications, outreach has become perhaps the best-known element of the Reform approach to Judaism.

The result has been an influx of hundreds of thousands of intermarried couples and their children through Reform temple doors, where they have had more contact with Jewish life than they would likely have gotten anywhere else.

“On intermarriage, damn it, let’s confront it, let’s do something about it. Let’s not count the casualties before the battle is over,” said Schindler in an interview last week as he packed up the contents of his UAHC office.

“Anything else is literally suicide,” he said, admitting frustration with the view of some prominent Jewish sociologists that limited communal funds are best spent strengthening the experiences of Jews already committed to leading Jewish lives, rather than using them to try to attract the intermarried and unaffiliated.

Just one-third of the children in American intermarried families are being raised as Jews, he said, but 90 percent to 95 percent of children of intermarried parents who belong to synagogues are being raised as Jews.

He also cited as evidence of the success of his philosophy the experience of Seattle Reform congregations, which last month advertised in the secular press a brief Introduction to Judaism course, inviting intermarried and unaffiliated Jews, and non-Jews, to sign up.

The organizers “got 700 phone calls from people who said, `I didn’t think you were interested in me,’” Schindler said.

Another result of Reform doors being flung open wide to accommodate the intermarried was the 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent, a policy that deems Jewish the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother as long as they receive a Jewish education.

It was a move that even the most moderate Orthodox leaders continue to decry, describing it as an irreparable break with Jewish tradition, which requires that Jewishness be transmitted along the matrilineal line, and a schismatic break with the rest of the Jewish people.

Schindler dismisses the notion that patrilineal descent has caused any kind of rupture in the Jewish people and says outreach is the initiative of which he is proudest, the effort for which he hopes to be most remembered.

Not all of his provocative proposals have been adopted, however.

In an earlier era, at a time when the emphasis of Reform Judaism was on social action, his initiatives to strengthen the Jewish part of Reform Judaism did not always succeed.

Years ago, when Schindler floated the idea of establishing an elite day school for the best brightest Reform students, his constituents were not very interested.

That he was not able to establish such a “prep school” for Jewish leadership, “so that when kids go to college or seminary we don’t have to start [teaching them] with the Aleph Bais” is his biggest regret, he said.

Committed to Jewish education, Schindler oversaw a marked increase in the number of Reform Jewish day schools and an expansion of the Reform youth movement.

Five years ago, when Schindler was concerned that the Reform emphasis on individual religious autonomy had become too extreme, he called for the establishment of a synod of rabbis, “like a Sanhedrin,” to guide the movement’s religious boundaries.

The proposal “didn’t get to first base,” he said.

Schindler has been an ardent and articulate proponent of liberal political policies for both the United States and Israel, and said he would “miss the heady days of running from president to prime minister.”

The day before sitting down to talk with a reporter, he spoke with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, who Schindler described as “pretty disconsolate” over his loss.

Despite his liberal political views, Schindler was a confidante of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin’s, who was elected to office while Schindler was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The 70-year-old rabbi, whose evocative rhetoric might earn him the title of American Jewry’s poet laureate, if there were such a position, was raised in the bosom of Europe’s Jewish enlightenment and rich religious diversity.

As a child, Schindler attended an Orthodox day school but worshiped with his family at a Reform temple in his native Munich, Germany.

When his family came to New York when Schindler was 12, he became a Bar Mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue. His father, a Yiddish poet, would take him to Carnegie Hall on Sunday mornings to hear Stephen Wise preach, and then to the Lower East Side to listen to the anti-religious writer Abraham Cahan.

“My father taught me to love all Jews,” said Schindler, whose early religious experiences focused on fashioning a modern Judaism suited to an age of intellectual incredulity.

And in the same inevitable way, Yoffie’s leadership reflects his upbringing as an American Reform Jew.

Raised in a Worcester, Mass, congregation, which was led for a time by Schindler the young Yoffie was a regional president and national vice president of the Reform youth movement.

Born at the very start of the baby boom, Yoffie, who rose through the professional ranks of the Reform movement, wants to shape the Reform movement to better respond to the needs of his spiritually hungry peers.

“The dry bones of North American Judaism are stirring,” he said in his inaugural address on Shabbat that made clear his vision of Reform Judaism.

“Sparks are visible to the naked eye, ready to leap into flame; what is happening is nothing less than a revolution, smoldering from below rather than ignited from above.”

Jews “are reacting to the boredom, the emptiness, the lack of meaning in their lives,” he said.

“They are searching for the poetry of faith, because the need for transcendental meaning is as present as an open sore. This is a generation that wants to believe, that is seeking a modicum of decency, that it yearning for the scared.

“The modern Jew – so successful and sophisticated, so cynical and skeptical – is yearning, knowingly or not, for God,” he said.

Yoffie’s challenge will be to get more Reform Jews to commit not just to wanting a more Jewish life, but to creating it for themselves.

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