WASHINGTON, Jan. 9 (JTA) – A Jewish advocate for religious freedom and human rights is the first rabbi to receive a Presidential Citizens medal.
Rabbi Arthur Schneier, recognized at a White House ceremony Monday, is the founder and president of the Appeal of Conscience Foundation, which promotes religious freedom, peace and tolerance.
President Clinton said Schneier has set “an inspiring example of spiritual leadership by encouraging interfaith dialogue and intercultural understanding and promoting the cause of religious freedom around the world.”
Over the years, Schneier has met with many world leaders to promote religious liberty. In 1986 Schneier met with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to encourage him to liberalize the treatment of religious communities.
In 1998 Clinton appointed Schneier as one of three U.S. religious leaders to meet with Chinese President Jiang Zemin on the issue of religious freedom and to examine the life of religious communities in China. Schneier served as an international envoy for four administrations.
Schneier has worked on broad interfaith efforts to help many different religious minorities. Recently, Schneier has been urging the United Nations to adopt a resolution that would stop the destruction of religious and holy sites.
At the medal ceremony, Schneier said he was moved to recall his arrival to America in 1947 and his first glimpse of the Statue of Liberty.
“I hardly spoke English,” he said. “I didn’t even know the White House existed.”
Schneier said the medal gives him a very patriotic feeling of gratitude to the United States.
Clinton noted that Schneier, as a refugee and Holocaust survivor, knows firsthand about the consequences of hatred and intolerance, and commended him for devoting his life to fighting them.
Being the first rabbi to receive the medal, which was established in 1969, is of special significance to Schneier. He said he has a sense of “great satisfaction” that his work reflects well for the Jewish community and brings credit to the Jewish people.
Schneier was born in Vienna and lived under Nazi occupation in Budapest during World War II. He is the spiritual leader of Park East Synagogue in New York.
Clinton said at the ceremony that he looked forward to seeing Schneier in New York and joked that perhaps Schneier would become his rabbi.
Clinton honored 28 Americans for their public service. Below are some of the other Jewish figures honored for their public service.
• Robert Rubin, former secretary of the treasury, was recognized for his role in creating America’s longest economic expansion and helping “countless Americans share in an era of unprecedented prosperity.”
• Former Sen. Warren Rudman of New Hampshire was honored for his efforts to shape national security policy and his legacy of public service.
• Marion Wiesel was honored for her writings on the children of the Holocaust, for translation of husband Elie Wiesel’s, work and her assistance to young Ethiopians in Israel.