Rabbi Alexander Schindler, the longtime leader of the Reform movement best known for his support of outreach to intermarried couples and recognition of patrilineal descent, 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 (UAHC) from 1973 to 1996, Schindler – who viewed Judaism as a dynamic faith – championed a number of dramatic changes.
Schindler devised a controversial “outreach” program challenging Jews to become “champions of Judaism,” reversing the tradition of discouraging proselytizing.
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.
Under Schindler’s tenure, the Reform movement officially embraced patrilineal descent in the mid-1980s, something more traditional Jews have sharply criticized, saying it was a major blow to Jewish unity.Interviewed 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.”
Schindler championed equality for women in Judaism, as well as acceptance of gay and lesbian Jews.He also oversaw publication of the first Torah commentary written from a Reform perspective.
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.
“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.”
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.
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 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 earned a Bronze Star and a Purple Heart as a ski trooper during World War II.
Originally intending to become an engineer, Schindler decided to pursue Jewish studies after the war. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1953, at the Reform movement’s seminary, Hebrew Union College.
After ordination, Schindler served as rabbi at Temple Emanuel in Worcester, Mass. (at the same time the UAHC’s current president, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, was beginning his Jewish education there). Beginning in 1963, he served as director of education, then vice president of the UAHC before succeeding Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath as president.
“He was an awesomely inspiring personality,” said Rabbi Jerrold Goldstein, associate director of UAHC, Pacific Southwest Region. “He really felt the prophetic call to social justice and always inspired me to be a better Jew than I am.”
“We have lost a visionary leader of our people,” said L.A. attorney Allan Goldman, former UAHC chairman of the board. “He was a giant who engaged us with his gentleness, poetry, compassion and love.”He is survived by his wife, Rhea, and five children. His funeral is scheduled for Friday morning at Temple Israel in Westport.