A Patrilineal Jew Mourns a Great Rabbi

By Susan Katz Miller


Reform Jews do not usually idolize their leaders. But since Rabbi Alexander Schindler, former President of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, died suddenly in November, there has been a remarkable outpouring of stories about him — remembrances filled with affection and sorrow. So many people were touched by this man: Rabbis inspired to go into the rabbinate, gay and lesbian Jews given courage, interfaith couples given strength. As an interfaith “child,” a Jew by patrilineal descent, I feel the need to add my Rabbi Schindler story to the flood of fond remembrances. For if it weren’t for Rabbi Schindler, I wouldn’t be a Jew.

In 1849, my great-great-grandfather was a founding member of a tiny Jewish congregation in the foothills of the Pocono mountains in Pennsylvania. Cut off from the centers of urban Jewish culture, the German Jews of the town of Honesdale, most of them merchants, got along easily with their German Catholic and Lutheran neighbors. But despite their small numbers and rapid cultural assimilation, the Jews of Honesdale clung to their religious identity. In 1856, the Beth Israel Congregation built a one-room temple on the bank of the Lackawaxen River, on land donated by the Delaware and Hudson Canal Company. For much of its history, this white clapboard building would claim to be the smallest synagogue in the country.

A disciple of Rabbi Schindler, Rabbi Allan Smith, has served the Honesdale congregation for almost 30 years. In 1999, when Beth Israel celebrated its 150th anniversary, Rabbi Smith arranged for the keynote speaker to be Rabbi Schindler. As a descendant of one of the founding members, I made the trip over the mountains to celebrate the survival of the temple where generations of my family have worshipped. I had heard of Schindler, but I wasn’t expecting anything more than a soporific after-dinner speech. I had yet to realize the key role that this rabbi played in my personal history as a patrilineal Jew.

Perhaps because the Jews of Honesdale are so few and so isolated, my family was on the leading edge of the trend towards interfaith marriage. My father married my Protestant mother in 1960. Through the 1960s and 70s, my parents raised me as a Jew, despite Jewish tradition that said I could not be Jewish. I learned Hebrew, was Bat Mitzvah. Yet it wasn’t until the year I graduated from college, in 1983, that Rabbi Schindler pushed through a ruling that would allow me to officially claim membership as a Jew.

Listening to Rabbi Schindler speak that night, I was charmed by his humor, his wisdom, his poetic language. He seemed to me the essence of what a rabbi should be. But most of all, I was suddenly struck by the degree to which my identity as a Jew was possible because of this man. And for my children, who are only one-quarter Jewish, and the “wrong” quarter at that, their Jewish identity seems to hang by a thread. I work hard to infuse their lives with Jewish ritual and teachings. But Alex Schindler must be credited with giving them a chance, however slim, to be Jews.

When the Rabbi finished speaking, I waited for a chance to approach him. I am usually a shy person, but I suddenly knew I had to make personal contact with this man. I introduced myself as a great-great-grandaughter of one of the Congregation’s founders, and as a patrilineal Jew. With a catch in my throat, I thanked him for holding open the heavy synagogue doors so that I, and other patrilineal Jews, could slip in. As he looked deep into my eyes, I was so focused on fighting back tears, the truth is I don’t know what he said to me. But I know that he blessed me, and that he kissed the top of my head. I felt a glow, an emotional and spiritual warmth emanating from this man, that penetrated to my soul.

Last month, I returned to the little Temple on the Lackawaxen River on the Sabbath after Thanksgiving, and heard Rabbi Smith eulogize his beloved mentor. He lauded Schindler as the man who initiated the call for patrilineal descent, adding, “It was controversial and it remains controversial. Even in Reform there are those who would like to overturn what has become such an important part of Reform Jewish life.” A sad truth. I have spent much of my adult life defending my Jewish identity, to other Jews.

In the moment Rabbi Schindler kissed my head, though, I felt wholly and deeply Jewish. It was a unique experience for me, but apparently it was also a quintessential Schindler moment. As Rabbi Smith described it: “I dare say that anyone who would encounter Alex for just a moment, one on one, would have that abiding feeling that something very special had just occurred, that they had celebrated that existential moment when two people truly encounter one another. He had that unique capacity to make you feel that it was all about you.” In my moment with Rabbi Schindler, it was all about me, but somehow it was also about my children, and about all of the interfaith children of Jewish fathers who cling to Judaism. May his memory be for a blessing, and his work never forgotten.


About Susan Katz Miller

Susan Katz Miller is an interfaith child, an interfaith parent and the author of Being Both: Embracing Two Religions in One Interfaith Family.