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October 8, 2015 | 25th Tishrei 5776

Mel Merians Tribute to Schindler

In Tribute to
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler
President, Union of American Hebrew Congregations
by Melvin Merians
Chairman, Board of Trustees, Saturday, Dec. 2, 1995
1995 Biennial Convention

How do I put into words the high esteem and the enduring gratitude we all have for you? Preparing for this moment, i asked people, "What do you think is Alex's greatest contribution? What is it that you will remember most about Rabbi Schinderl?

Over and over, I heard:

"....Alex is a man of honor and courage..."
"...a man who is true to his vision...."
"...steadfast in his beliefs..."
"...a loving, compassionate man...."
"...a caring and gentle human being..."

More specifically, Alex, You reminded us that just as Abraham opened his tent to the sojourner, so too must we open our tents and be welcoming. You showed us the way to open the ranks of our clergy, our professional organizations and our leadership to women, to gays, to welcome the intermarried, the unaffiliated, and the Jew-by-choice.

You blazed the trail for patrilineal descent as an authentic basis for Jewish identity, and called on us to not only open our arms, - but to go out, to find, to embrace, and to invite - those who have drifted away from our traditions and those who are searching for a spiritual expression, and want to join our community.

But, just as important as the work you have done to bring more people into our synagogues is the contribution you have made to what happens when they get there. You asked each of us to examine, explore and take seriously our religious commitment. You would not accept a Judaism that was sterile, or unmoving, or cold. And so, you insisted that we bring music, warmth, and life into our synagogues and into our homes, and you challenged us to recognize God's presence in our every action.

You understood our responsibility, as Jews, to repair the world, and so continued our movement's commitment to social action, enhancing our presence in Washington, encouraging congregations to be involved in their communities.

Under your leadership, the Union published the first Torah commentary created in North America, soon to be joined by the Haftorah commentary. You demanded that we all become students of our faith, you taught us that Reform Judaism requires informed choices, and in so doing gave us pride in the authenticity of our tradition.

A great leader builds on the foundation laid by his or her predecessor, and, in your case, you had very big shoes to fill. It was just 22 years ago the opening day of the biennial, just hours before he was to deliver the State of the Union Address, when Rabbi Eisendrath suddenly died. And while you were the president-elect, it was not yet time.

But this awful tragedy thrust the presidency upon you and you accepted the mantle of leadership of this great Union. With characteristic decisiveness, courage.and wisdom you accepted the challenge and delivered Rabbi Eisendrath's message, word for word, a daring speech about the evil of Watergate, .a speech that practically called for President Nixon's impeachment.

On that day, you rose above a moment of tragedy and healed the broken hearts of our movement

In the wake of the tragic death of Rabbi Eisendrath, the UAHC board established the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Awards, given every two years at the biennial in his memory. Early in your presidency you were chosen Chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations. From this platform, you spoke not just for Reform Jews but for ALL Jews, for K'lal Yisrael.

You understood that despite religious differences among us we are ONE people, a lover of Zion, you helped establish ARZA, and the Israel Religious Action Center. You fought for the rights of all Jews in Israel. You earned the admiration and friendship of Prime Minister Begin, and those Israeli leaders who succeeded him, and you gained the respect of the world at large.

It is therefore particularly appropriate that this year, as we celebrate the courage and leadership you have shown for the past 22 years, that we present to you the Eisendrath Award for devoted service to the Jewish people.

I've spoken of your courage, of your decisiveness, and of your vision. But I have not yet painted the full picture, for I have failed to mention the keen intellect that impels your every move. Your intellectual leadership has been a driving force of our Reform movement. Our tradition teaches us to honor knowledge, but not everyone who is knowledgeable, is wise. So, to be both knowledgeable and wise - Aye - (to borrow a word from you!) - Aye, that requires humor, humility, heart and hope, all of which you possess in abundance, my friend.

What better way to honor one who is learned than with a festschrift - a collection of writings to celebrate a person of respect and renown. So, it is with great joy that the Union created this book of honor - "The Jewish Condition" - in honor of you and your many contributions.

These 28 essays by leading scholars and religious figures - all of whom are your personal friends - reflect the major issues you have addressed during your presidency, issues that will profoundly affect the future of the Jewish people. Each section of the book is introduced with your words, portions of your own writings, or speeches you have given, so your wisdom, your words, your poetry will always remain in our midst both as a source of inspiration and education.

And, I know you will be pleased to know, a facilitators guide to "The Jewish Condition" has been created, to enhance the use of this volume in our quest for lifelong education.

It is a distinct privilege to present you with this a special leather-bound edition. I know you will treasure it, as we all will, for everyone here will receive a copy of this volume upon leaving the auditorium. We will be able to carry back to our homes a little of your wisdom, your light, and your intellect - as well as these essays - the wonderful gifts of your friends.

While I have had the pleasure of serving with you for the past four years, I am not the ONLY one to have gained from this experience. Therefore, I would like to invite to join us here on the podium those who also served as chairman during your presidency so that they may share the honor of honoring you: Matthew Ross, Chairman of the Board from 1974-79; Donald Day, Chairman, 1979-83; Charles Rothschild Jr., 1983-87, and Allan Goldman, 1987-91.

I'm speaking for all of us, when I say the five of us here with you on this stage are wiser, blessed, and more committed to our tradition for having been chairmen during your presidency.

Rhea, those of us who know and love Alex understand the importance that you have played in his work and dedication to Judaism. You have been at his side, supporting him, cheering for him, beating him in tennis, giving to him so much love that it spilled over to embrace each of us who came near Alex - a love that warms us all. You have been a true partner to Alex, in all his endeavors. And so this next presentation is not just to Alex, but to both of you, a means of showing our movement's appreciation for all that you both have given us.

Alex and Rhea, we know you both have a love of Jewish ritual objects, not because of their material worth, but for the rich history of our people that they convey. And so, when it came time to find something that you could take to your home, as you embark on this, the next chapter in your lives, I called on Mark and Peachy Levy to help us find a gift with traditional meaning and historical resonance. The rabbis tell us that the crown and the yad that adorn Torah scrolls grace wisdom with beauty. They draw our eyes to the saga of our people, and, like a shining beacon, light the way for generations. Surely Rabbi Shimon had leaders such as Rabbi Schindler in mind when he taught: There are three crowns: the crown of Torah, the crown of Priesthood, and the crown of royalty. But the crown of the Good Name exceeds them all."

There are three inscriptions on this gift which I would like to share with you. Judah ben Samuel Hehasid, in the Shir Hakavod - the Hymn of Glory - wrote "My praise shall be for you a crown upon your head....."

We, too, praise you, Alex, and want you to have this crown, a silver Torah crown in the 19th century neo-gothic style, created by the German firm of Posen, one of the outstanding silversmiths noted for the beauty of their ritual objects.

And, in addition, we would like you and Rhea to have this sterling yad, crafted by a Dutch silversmith in 1760. The inscription, taken from Psalm 32, Verse.8, reads: "Let me enlighten you and show you which way to go."

Finally, I would like to read to you the inscription on this case: "To Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, our wise and beloved teacher, our leader, who with Rhea by his side, has pointed the way." And it is dated UAHC, 9th of Kislev, 5756.

Alex, you have been a crown of glory to the Union. Your words have enlightened us and your deeds have pointed the way for us to go. For all these gifts, we thank you.

Ladies and gentlemen, Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler.

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