abbi Alexander M.
Schindler may not be
president of Jewish
America — a throne to
which there is no dearth
of self-proclaimed occu-
pants. But for the past
22 years he has been at ground zero in
modern Jewish life's most controversial
In June, Rabbi Schindler will formal-
ly retire as executive director of the
Union of American Hewbrew Congre-
gations (UAHC) after a highly visible
and often controversial career. The na-
' tive of Germany, whose grandfather was
a Belzer Chasid, is now on what he calls
a quasi-sabbatical. That will enable his
successor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie, to begin
charting the course to the 21st centu-
ry for the world's largest synagogue
s UAHC president since 1973, Rabbi
Schindler has been a bull in a Judaica shop
— albeit a well-educated and intensely fo-
cused one. The list of his initiatives is an inventory
of the most divisive issues in modern Jewish life.
Since assuming office, he has pushed the move-
• Accept patrilineal descent, which, altering more
than two millennia of Jewish law, declares a child
Jewish if just the father is Jewish and the child is
/= • Embrace the ordination of gays and lesbians as
rabbis, as well as women in the rabbinate, which
was approved shortly before he came to the UAHC;
• Declare missionizing to Jews and non-Jews a
legitimate and needed Jewish activity;
• Make outreach to interfaith families a priori-
.Rabbi Schindler also has shepherded a return to-
`_‘_,,ward traditional Jewish study, advocated Reform
Jewish day schools and called on Reform Jews to
live more Jewishly, a message whose details can differ
widely in Reform circles.
In each push, Rabbi Schindler has taken pains to show
how tradition, in his view, permits and even commands
the initiatives. His biennial speeches over the years, well-
circulated among Reform leaders, have been laced with
quotations and examples from Jewish text and history.
/— Maimonides, the Jewish rationalist of the early Middle
Ages, is a favorite source.
"It was Maimonides himself, answering a convert's
query, who wrote, `Do not think little of your origin. We
may be descended from Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but
your descent is from the Almighty Himself,"' Rabbi
Schindler said in his 1978 biennial address in Houston.
Not surprisingly, the actions of the 70-year-old leader
,\T'• have often drawn the ire of Judaism's other branches.
Neil Rubin is editor of one of our sister papers, the
Atlanta Jewish Times.
the beards of Chabad Lubavitch Chasidim.
That is particularly true of Orthodoxy, which
In recent years, because of "political rea-
in the past decade has seen a general shift
sons these cleavages became sharper, but
Rabbi Eric Yoffie:
to the right.
"There's a yearning
they are from the extremes," he said.
But Rabbi Schindler insists that talk of
for more" spirituality
Nonetheless, some non-Reform leaders
sharp acrimony is over-inflated.
among baby boomer
argue that Rabbi Schindler, with his flam-
"I don't think that the relationships are
boyancy, has heightened the aggravation
as bad as all that," he said. "I'm talking about
between Jewish groups. (At the recent
the mainstream Orthodox and non-Ortho-
UAHC biennial, he performed the wedding
dox. About the fanatics there's nothing I can
do. They try to put their beliefs on us and I have nothing of a Kohen and a divorcee, violating a taboo according
to Jewish law.)
to talk to them about."
"He's made a major contribution to finding what's called
In fact, Reform clergy and other rabbis have found "cer-
tain areas'? where they could work together, such as on the center for a whole generation of Reform Jews," said
Israel and Soviet Jewry matters, he said. "It's because Blu Greenberg, a well-known Orthodox feminist. "At the
we found that we weren't just rabbis, but people of faith same time, he's given a major blow to the community
on the concept of patrilineal descent. It's a sense of tremen-
and that we shared common ideas."
He believes that over the years there has been more dous division in the community, and I believe it could
division within Jewish groups. In particular, he recalls have gone the other way."
Dealing with children of non-Jewish mothers is "es-
when Satmar Chasidim in New York City reportedly cut