Reform leader Schindler retires as successor urges core values

NEW YORK — The walls of the modest office with its spectacular view of Central Park are bare now.

Rabbi Alexander Schindler has taken down the school photos of his five children and the picture of the Western Wall, and has relegated them to boxes in the corner.

The man who led the Reform movement for 23 years and turned it into America's largest synagogue movement is vacating the Union of American Hebrew Congregations' presidential office to make room for his successor, Rabbi Eric Yoffie. The movement is in the early stages of reinventing itself: Yoffie is trying to fashion a future for Reform Judaism that focuses more on core Jewish values.

During his first official sermon at Manhattan's Temple Shaaray Tefila June 8, the new president declared, "Torah, Torah, Torah. And our program will be: Educate, educate, educate."

When he took the presidency in 1973, Schindler was a lightning rod for controversial policies.

At his behest, in 1978 the UAHC launched an outreach program to intermarried and unaffiliated Jews that is unmatched in scope anywhere in the Jewish community. The movement also opened its doors to female rabbis and cantors as well as to gay and lesbian Jews. It developed formal mechanisms for social action through the New York-based Association of Reform Zionists of America and the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, which has offices in Washington, D.C., and Jerusalem.

In the process, the UAHC grew from 400 member congregations to 870. In the past 20 years, the number of individuals belonging to Reform congregations has also grown by about 25 percent, to some 1.25 million.

Yoffie, over the past year as president-elect, has declared his intention to continue outreach. But he has already developed new departments and programs indicating that his vision emphasizes the "Judaism" in "liberal Judaism."

Already in place at the UAHC is a new Adult Jewish Growth department, establishing Reform study retreats targeting various populations from young unaffiliated Jews to senior citizens to families with young children.

Yoffie is also expanding the UAHC's education department.

The department of interreligious affairs has been axed and the social action budget has been cut back, though veteran liberal activist and commentator Leonard Fein has been hired on a part-time basis to run the UAHC's social action commission.

Schindler has marked the movement with an indelible and very personal imprint that has, at times, proven revolutionary. Today, outreach — with all its complex ramifications — has become Reform's arguably best-known element.

Hundreds of thousands of intermarried couples and their children have flowed into Reform synagogues, where they find more contact with Jewish life than they would likely have gotten elsewhere.

"On intermarriage, damn it, let's confront it; let's do something about it. Let's not count the casualties before the battle is over," said Schindler last week. "Anything else is literally suicide."

He admitted being frustrated with prominent Jewish sociologists' view that limited communal funds are better spent on committed Jews than on the intermarried and unaffiliated. One-third of the children in American intermarried families are being raised as Jews, he said. But 90 percent to 95 percent of children of intermarried parents who belong to synagogues are being raised as Jews.

Schindler, saying his approach is right, pointed to the experience of Seattle Reform congregations, which last month advertised in the secular press an upcoming Introduction to Judaism course, inviting intermarried and unaffiliated Jews as well as non-Jews to sign up.

The organizers "got 700 phone calls from people who said, `I didn't think you were interested in me,'" Schindler said.

Another result of Reform Judaism's will to accommodate the intermarried was the movement's 1983 adoption of patrilineal descent, in which the children of a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother are considered Jews as long as they receive a Jewish education.

Even the most moderate Orthodox leaders continue to decry this move, describing it as a schismatic break with the rest of the Jewish people and an irreparable departure from Jewish tradition, which requires that Jewishness be transmitted along matrilineal lines.

Schindler says outreach is the initiative of which he is proudest.

But not all of his provocative proposals have been adopted. Years ago, Schindler proposed establishing an elite day school for the best and brightest Reform students and found little interest. He regrets he was unable to establish such a "prep school" so that "when kids go to college or seminary we [wouldn't] have to start with [teaching them] the Aleph Bais."

Yet Schindler also oversaw a sharp increase in the number of Reform Jewish day schools and an expansion of the Reform youth movement.

Five years ago, concerned that the Reform emphasis on individual religious autonomy had become too extreme, he suggested establishing a synod of rabbis, "like a Sanhedrin," to guide the movement's boundaries. But the proposal "didn't get to first base," he said.

Schindler has been an ardent and articulate proponent of liberal politics for both the United States and Israel, and said he would "miss the heady days of running from president to prime minister." He recently spoke with former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres, whom Schindler described as "pretty disconsolate" over his loss to Benjamin Netanyahu.

Despite his own liberal politics, Schindler was a confidante of former Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin, who was elected to office while Schindler was chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations.

The 70-year-old Schindler, whose evocative rhetoric makes him a sort of American Jewish poet laureate, grew up in the bosom of Europe's Jewish enlightenment, amid rich religious diversity. As a child in Munich, Germany, he attended an Orthodox day school but went to a Reform synagogue. Arriving in New York with his family at the age of 12, he celebrated his bar mitzvah in an Orthodox synagogue.

His father was a Yiddish poet "who taught me to love all Jews."

Yoffie's leadership style also reflects his upbringing. Raised in a Worcester, Mass., congregation, which Schindler led for a time, the young Yoffie was a leader in the Reform youth movement.

Yoffie, a baby-boomer who rose through the professional ranks of the Reform movement, wants to shape the movement to better meet the needs of his peers.

"The dry bones of North American Judaism are stirring," he said in his inaugural address.

"Sparks are visible to the naked eye, ready to leap into flame; what is happening is nothing less than a revolution, smoldering from below rather than ignited from above."

Jews "are reacting to the boredom, the emptiness, the lack of meaning in their lives," he said.

"They are searching for the poetry of faith, because the need for transcendental meaning is as present as an open sore. This is a generation that wants to believe, that is seeking a modicum of decency, that is yearning for the sacred.

"The modern Jew — so successful and sophisticated, so cynical and skeptical — is yearning, knowingly or not, for God," he said.