NEW YORK, Nov. 15 (JTA) — Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the longtime leader of the Reform movement who was considered a “giant” in the larger Jewish community, has died at the age of 75.
He died early Wednesday morning from heart failure at his home in Westport, Conn.
As president of Reform Judaism’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations from 1973 to 1996, Schindler — who viewed Judaism as a dynamic faith — advocated a number of revolutionary changes.
Reversing the tradition of discouraging proselytizing, Schindler devised a controversial “outreach” program for non-Jewish spouses of Jews, challenging Jews to become “champions of Judaism” to these spouses.
He also called on the Jewish community to welcome intermarried couples into synagogue life and supported patrilineal descent, the controversial notion that a child with a Jewish father and gentile mother can be considered Jewish if the child is raised Jewish.
At Schindler’s urging, the Reform movement’s rabbinic arm officially recognized patrilineal descent in 1983, something more traditional Jews have sharply criticized, saying it was a major blow to Jewish unity.
Interviewed by JTA earlier this year, Schindler said he had no regrets about the decision and said it was “just not true” that patrilineal descent had caused tensions between Reform and other streams of Judaism.
“When the decision was made, Orthodox rabbis said by the year 2000 we’d be two Jewish people,” he said. “It hasn’t happened.”
In addition, Schindler championed equality for women in Judaism, as well as acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews.
He was a keynote speaker earlier this year at the World Congress of Gay, Lesbian and Bisexual Jewish Organizations.
“He was a revolutionary,” said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who succeeded Schindler as president of the UAHC. “The things we take for granted about outreach now were on Page 1 of The New York Times when he said them.”
Schindler was Yoffie’s childhood rabbi in Worcester, Ma., and Yoffie remembers his “wonderful ability to talk to kids and tell extraordinary stories.”
“He was one of the most extraordinary orators in American life, at a time when oratory is a lost art not only in the Jewish world, but in American society — no one had his gift for poetic oratory,” said Yoffie.
Although known for embracing dramatic changes, he also embraced tradition, as evidenced by the speech he gave shortly before he stepped down from leading the UAHC.
“I feared, and still do, that we Reform Jews are entirely too lax in our observances,” he said at the time.
“Having asserted our autonomy, insisting on our right to choose, too many among us choose nothing at all, or, choosing something, we observe it only haphazardly.”
Under Yoffie’s leadership, the Reform movement has increasingly focused on those issues, turning its attention to Jewish education and making religious services more spiritually meaningful.
But, said Yoffie, that is not a rejection of Schindler’s work.
“Alex spoke to needs of his time,” said Yoffie. “In his time, outreach and inclusion were appropriately at the top of our priority list because they weren’t being addressed.”
Now, said Yoffie, while the movement is still committed to outreach, Jewish literacy and heartfelt worship “need to be our priorities.”
“The fact that I was emphasizing other things that are exceedingly important was not something disturbing to him,” said Yoffie, noting that when Schindler passed the torch to him, his predecessor said, “Be yourself and change everything.”
Schindler was also known as an ardent Zionist and strong advocate of social justice, speaking out on behalf of nuclear disarmament and against poverty and the death penalty.
Rabbi David Saperstein, director of the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center in Washington, said Schindler “was gutsy about the political positions he took both about Jewish life and American public life.”
Schindler enjoyed close relationships with several members of the U.S. Congress, said Saperstein. His views were “rooted in deep knowledge, commitment to Jewish tradition.”
Schindler was also a key Jewish leader outside the Reform movement. From 1976 to 1978 he served as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.
His tenure coincided with the ascendancy of Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin.
Begin’s victory, which ended the decades-long control of the Israeli government by the Labor Party, initially alarmed many American Jews, who viewed him as an ideologue.
Although Schindler differed politically with Begin, he promptly visited the prime minister — and the two later became good friends.
After the visit, Schindler told American Jews he found Begin to be a man of “peace and integrity, with a profound devotion to the Jewish people and their security,” as he later wrote in an article on highlights of his chairmanship.
In recent years, Schindler became a strong advocate of the Israeli- Palestinian peace process, and in the past few weeks expressed dismay about the outbreak of violence.
“I hope and pray that the peace process will go forward because the return to the status quo is unthinkable,” he said a month ago.
Schindler’s friendship with Begin was emblematic of his relations to many others with whom he differed on the issues.
Leaders both within and outside Reform Judaism described Schindler as a warm, generous personality able to rise above differences.
“We disagreed on so much and yet we were so close,” said Julius Berman, honorary president of the Orthodox Union and a past chairman of the Conference of Presidents.
Berman remains fiercely critical of Schindler’s positions on outreach to the intermarried and his embrace of patrilineal descent and recalls frequently debating him on these issues.
But Schindler had an “ability to put aside his parochial interests as leader of the UAHC for the good of the overall community,” said Berman. He added that Schindler was an “excellent orator, great thinker and someone who
was a tremendous power because of his personality.”
Others praised Schindler’s warm personality.
Schindler was “legendary in the UAHC for his extraordinary generosity of efforts to help staff and board members when they’d run into personal problems or problems related to their responsibilities in Jewish life,” said Saperstein.
“I don’t know how he found time to visit so many hospitals when people were ill and speak at so many funerals,” said Saperstein. “Everyone wanted him to come and he always somehow managed to help.”
Schindler also oversaw publication of the first Torah commentary written from a Reform perspective.
At the time of his death, Schindler was serving as president of the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture and vice president of the World Jewish Congress.
A Jewish National Fund forest in Israel of 500,000 trees bears his name.
Born in Germany in 1925, Schindler fled the Nazis with his family, arriving in the United States at the age of 12. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1953, at the Reform movement’s seminary, the Hebrew Union College.
He is survived by his wife, Rhea, and five children. His funeral is scheduled for Friday morning at Temple Israel in Westport.