RJ Spring 2001

Shalom, Alex
Rabbi Alexander M. Schindler 1925-2000

by Al Vorspan

These words were written by Alex:

Our lives are a wilderness,
uncharted and unpredictable--
untimely deaths, unexpected blows,
unsuitable matches, unfulfilled dreams.
And yet, by gathering our heartaches
into a house of worship,
we find something transformative happening--
our sorrows become windows of compassion.
Paths through the wilderness,
hewed and marked by past generations,
give us our bearings.
Patterns of meaning and significance emerge.
We are moved from self-pity to love.
Our individual heartbeats merge with the pulse
of all humankind.
Suddenly we no longer tremble
like an uprooted reed.

My friends, it would take an Alex Schindler to do justice to Alex Schindler. Let me say: a prince of Israel has fallen. Indeed, a shining star in our lives--we imagined it eternal--has been torn from our firmament. Alex Schindler was one of the greatest Jewish leaders of our time, and he will become a legend for generations to come, as he was shaped by the stirrings of ages past. It takes 3,000 years to make an Alex Schindler, and we were blessed to have known him.

Everybody knows that Alex picked up the baton of leadership from another fallen warrior, former UAHC President Rabbi Maurice Eisendrath, in 1973--and he never stopped running. He brought vision and a deep love for the Jewish people to the UAHC, and the UAHC enjoyed explosive growth and increased influence under his leadership. It went from 450 to 850 congregations.

Alex had the capacity to see beyond the horizon. He envisioned a liberal Torah commentary to teach the Jewish world the insights of Reform. He pioneered the program of Outreach, which revolutionized Jewish life. He demanded gender equality, which transformed our temples; a quickening of religious action, which helped to open America to all its citizens; and a re-dedication to education, including day schools. And he pushed for the creation of the Association of Reform Zionists of America to awaken and challenge a moribund Zionist world. He was immensely courageous: demanding economic justice for the poor and the weak in the very teeth of Reagan triumphalism, pleading for women's rights in the face of smirking chauvinism, and gay rights in the face of raging homophobia. He had the courage, when Rabbi Eisendrath died just before he was to deliver a State of the Union address excoriating President Nixon for his abuses of the Constitution and many advisers urged Alex to edit the scathing words, to insist: "I will read it as he prepared it, every single word, no editing. We owe him that."

He had the courage to confront General Ariel Sharon over Lebanon, Yitzak Rabin for the breaking of bones, Shimon Peres over religious pluralism, Jimmy Carter over Brzezinski--and he also had the courage to confront people like me who were aghast when Begin was elected Prime Minister of Israel. "He is the duly elected prime minister of a democratic Israel, and we have no right to delegitimize him or pre-judge him," he said. The two become lifelong friends, soulmates, and Begin honored Alex in Jerusalem on the eve of the Camp David peace treaty with Egypt.

Alex was not only a towering leader of Reform Judaism. He was, as chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations, the unquestioned leader of all American Jewry, and he became an international Jewish servant, wearing 1,000 kipot. His love of the Jewish people was sacred, invincible. He was the ohev Yisrael par excellence. He was loved because of a rare combination--outspoken, often unpopular views, combined with personal warmth, grace, and self-deprecating humor, which took the edge off controversy, especially when marinated in a Hasidic tale, a Yiddish joke, and a big hug.

Personally, Alex was fiercely competitive in poker, tennis, even in stealing good jokes. When Shirley and I had 4 kids, the Schindlers had 5. We have 7 grandkids, going on 8. So the Schindlers have 9. Once, a long time ago, he invited me to play squash with him--each of us for the first time. He aced me--15 to 0. "What's the matter, kid? You can't take the heat?" Then Alex keeled over with what turned out to be his first heart attack. Ironically, Shirley and I were with him and Rhea on Masada when he had his second. "You know, Al," he said after he recovered, "you're a damned jinx."

Tom Brokaw called Alex's generation--and mine--the Greatest Generation, because we fought the Depression, defeated Hitler and won World War II, exorcised the dybbuk of racial segregation, and re-invented America as an open, pluralistic society. All true. Now picture a lonely, shy, 12-year-old kid, a refugee from Nazi Germany, possessing only a few words in English, coming to America with his family to become chicken farmers in Lakewood, New Jersey. That kid was the son of a mystical, Yiddish-speaking poet and a feisty and practical businesswoman. That kid went to City College of New York, enlisted in the army, became a ski trooper, earned a Purple Heart for valor, came home and decided to become a rabbi, and went on to become the preeminent leader of our Movement, one of the most powerful voices in Jewish life. He was an artist with words, devoting one hour of preparation for every minute of his State of the Union address--and a champion of Israel and the Jewish people with a commitment beyond measure.

Alex became a celebrity figure, but I will remember him as a warm and tender friend, a brother, a mentor. He hobnobbed with kings and prime ministers and lunched with Henry Kissinger, but basically, to us, this was a gentle, warm, loving teddy bear of a mensch. Jimmy Vignapiano in the UAHC mailroom said: "Oh, I'll miss my buddy." Ted Kennedy and family will miss their rabbi. I will miss my fix--raunchy laughter, gossip, family news, arguments about plays and operas and books and politics. When he and his wife Rhea visited us in Hillsdale, NY, he made breakfast and insisted on spoiling our kids, introducing the Schindler tradition of bringing them breakfast in bed. We couldn't get Alex out of the house fast enough!

They say Alex's heart failed during the night. Well, if Alex had to go, this is the way he would have wanted it--at home, with his beloved Rhea, having already crafted speeches for Kansas City and beyond, dying with his boots on. As Rhea said, "We had a great run!" Martin Luther King, Jr. said: "Only one whose heart has been broken can be a whole person." Alex was a whole person. Alex's heart may have stopped, or got worn out and often broken, especially with the peace process in the Middle East in ruins. But it never failed. Compassion has become an empty slogan in our time, but for Alex it was the stuff of his life. Compassion for colleagues experiencing personal anguish or mistreatment. Compassion even for a Jonathan Pollard, in full recognition of his terrible wrongs. Compassion for the weak, the vulnerable, the Jew of all stripes, the non-Jew, the Palestinian, the single mother trapped in the inner city, people with AIDS, with disabilities; he embraced the human family.

Alex lived life fully, with gusto. He was a fervent music lover, especially opera, a skilled poker player and chess player--and he was skilled at political hardball too. He was a superb songleader, on the bus and at the Biennial. But his greatest passions were his family and the Jewish people. He adored his kids and grandkids, and so regretted his being away so often that every year he gave Rhea a Father's Day gift. He cherished the solidarity and unity of the Jewish people, and he was a genius at knitting together the fractious strands of Jewish life.

Alex loved the poet, Hayyim Bialik, who wrote:

After my death, mourn me thus: There was a man, and see, he is no more. Before his time his life was ended and the song of his life was broken. Oh, he had one more melody, and now that melody is lost forever, Lost forever.

Alex himself once said he wanted "to live life fully, clinging to its many gifts with all my might and then, paradoxically, to let go when life compels us to surrender what it gave."

We are all on Schindler's list. Maybe not the one that saved lives, but one that ennobled, enlarged, sweetened, and brightened our lives. Alex blessed us and inspired the better angels of our souls. God grant him the peace and serenity he so richly earned.

Shalom, chaver.

Al Vorspan is director emeritus of the Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism and author of many books, including Jewish Dimensions of Social Justice: Tough Moral Choices of Our Time, co-written with Rabbi David Saperstein (UAHC Press). This tribute is adapted from his eulogy for Rabbi Schindler at Temple Israel, Westport, CT, November 17, 2000.

We all loved Alex...

Because of his unfaltering optimism, which saved us from despair.

Because of his vision, which reminded us that Judaism cannot be saved by taking small steps.

--Rabbi Eric H. Yoffie

From an early age, my grandfather Eliezer, a Yiddish poet, taught my father to love everything Jewish, and imbued in him a respect for the rich tapestry of Jewish life. Often, my father made his decisions by the measure of what his father would have wanted him to do. And whenever he thought of his father, the sense of his continued presence was stronger than the knowledge of his death. Indeed, the Talmud teaches us of the immortality of the human deed--that "we live in deeds, not years." We will look at my father's death as simply a passing from this world to another--to a world where he can once again embrace his father. To know that he is with his art, and his music, and his poetry, and his love of all people.

--Elisa Ruth Schindler

"For years I recited the Mourner's Kaddish without an understanding of why we praise God when God takes from us someone so precious. Now I understand. We praise God for having given us Dad in the first place."

--Joshua Michael Schindler

Alex honored and respected his colleagues--whether we agreed with him or not. If a colleague was in trouble, Alex was the first to call.

--Rabbi Robert Orkand

If he were to have read yesterday's New York Times, undoubtedly, in his humility, he would have questioned: "Who is this Alex Schindler? It couldn't be me."

--Rhea Schindler

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