In Memoriam: Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler, 1925-2000

The Officers, Board of Trustees, and Staff of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations profoundly mourn the death of our cherished friend, colleague, and leader, Rabbi Alexander Moshe Schindler. Poet and philosopher, dreamer and doer, Alexander Schindler was an inspirational and innovative leader of the Reform Movement. A giant of Judaism, he led our Union with great compassion and consecration and made an impact on Reform Judaism and world Jewry that will resonate for generations yet to come. His intense love of K’lal Yisrael led him to leadership positions in the Federation of Polish Jews, the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the World Jewish Congress and the American Joint Distribution Committee. He served an unprecedented and distinguished two terms as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, defending Israel in an era of profound challenge.

During his twenty-three year tenure as our President, the Union experienced exceptional growth. Membership moved from 400 congregations in 1973 to almost 900 congregations in 1995. He was the visionary father of the Union’s acclaimed Torah Commentary. He not only conceived of the idea, he nurtured the project from a mere dream to the publication of the Liberal Torah Commentary that has a place of pride in congregations throughout North America. A remarkably compassionate humanitarian, he was devoted to social justice and religious action, always seeking to better the human condition, to gain rights for the disenfranchised, for women, gays and lesbians, and sustenance for the destitute and the downtrodden. Alex also recognized and worked toward meeting the Movement’s need for enriched religious school studies as well as stimulating and meaningful adult Jewish education. He promoted the establishment of Reform Day Schools, moving the Movement toward a pilot project that eventually led to the growing number of Reform Jewish Day Schools that now enrich the landscape of our Movement. A true Ohev Yisroel, lover of Israel, he prodded the Reform Movement to participate fully in the Zionist world and was a prime mover in the creation of ARZA and ARZA Canada.

Alex will be well remembered for a myriad of reasons. He will certainly be best remembered for Outreach, his call to our community to become “Champions of Judaism.” He urged us to welcome those who chose Judaism as their spiritual home and those who married into our faith and became involved in Jewish homes. The lives of thousands have been deeply touched, even changed, as a result of Outreach and the warm welcome Reform Judaism now provides those who join our ranks where formerly there was nothing, perhaps even a wall of silence. Among those whose lives have been positively effected by Outreach are men, women, and children who never met Alex Schindler but whose lives have surely been transformed and enhanced by Outreach.

Just as tenaciously as he promoted Outreach and patrilineality, acceptance of Jewishly educated children of Jewish fathers as Jews, Alex Schindler urged Reform Judaism to fortify the inner life of every Jew. In pushing for “inreach,” spiritual self-actualization, he said: “What purpose of outreach, pray tell, if there is nothing within?” Alex repeatedly called upon Reform Jews to take pride in their faith and make Judaism a meaningful enterprise in their lives.

We who stood closest to him, the past and present Trustees and staff of the UAHC, recall Alex Schindler as a mensch! Whether in the company of princes or paupers, NFTY kids or communal leaders, Alex was a warm, dynamic, loving human being. Sometimes he entered an elevator and didn’t say hello for he was often so “betracht,” so deep in thought, he was unaware of anyone standing near him. But once he saw you, his face lighted up, and his greeting was warm, hearty, and real.

Alex genuinely cared about all of us, from members of the cleaning crew, mailroom and support staff to his senior staff and Trustees. We all knew he truly cared about us and our families. He embraced us with his love and concern. We will remember him, with warmth and pride, as long as we live.

Above all, his family came first and he was a loving and devoted son, husband, father, grandfather, brother and uncle. As a son he truly lived by his parents life lessons and examples. His late mother always urged him to be sure that whatever he did was good for the Jews. And it was! His late father instilled in him the words and message inscribed in Yiddish on the ark of a shtibl in Warsaw, a credo held dear by Reb Nachman, the Bratzlaver Rebbe: Yidn, zait sich nisht misyaesh, “Jews, do not despair.” And Alex never despaired.

He was but a man, but what a man!

We shall miss him beyond measure. We grieve with Rhea, Lisa, Debra and Bob, Josh and Hadley, Judy and Chip, Jonathan, his nine grandchildren, and his sister, Eva Oles. Even as we know our lives were blessed by knowing and working with this very special Ohev Yisrael, so we pray that his memory will ever be for a blessing.

Ken Yehi Ratzon.