When Rabbi Judy Schindler first arrived at Charlotte, N.C.’s Temple Beth El in 1998, she was mostly known through her father, Alexander Schindler. He had fled the Nazis as a boy in 1937 and later grew up to be a prominent American rabbi who made a number of sweeping changes to Reform Judaism in the 1970s and 1980s.
Were it not for her father, Schindler would never have been able to become ordained herself — it was under his guidance that Reform congregations first began allowing women (and LGBT people) to become rabbis.
Alexander Schindler passed away in 2000, but Judy Schindler has kept her father’s activist roots alive. Since becoming senior rabbi in 2001, Schindler has become a fierce champion of LGBT rights in the Carolinas. She’s spoken out at rallies against Amendment One, produced documentaries for Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools that discourage bullying of LGBT kids, and she’s made two trips to Washington, one in 2011 and another in 2014, where she legally married 13 local gay and lesbian couples.
Her congregation of more than 1,000 families includes many LGBT ones, and the synagogue has celebrated well over a dozen same-sex unions over the last decade, beginning with a lesbian couple in 2003.
In December, Schindler announced she will leave her post as senior rabbi to pursue other social and academic work. qnotes sat down with the outspoken LGBT ally on a recent, rainy Monday to reflect on her past 17 years.
In 2011, you took seven couples to Washington to legally marry them. This was before North Carolina had legalized gay marriage. Were you worried how people would react back home?
Rabbi Judy Schindler: I was worried. It was a front page story [in The Charlotte Observer] and not all the couples wanted their names to be used and they were nervous about whether they’d lose their jobs when they got back. I wasn’t sure whether the temple would be defaced in any way, or we’d get angry phone calls, or there would be threats. I was nervous about how other parents at my kids’ school would receive me and how teachers would respond.
What was amazing was, after I got back from that 2011 wedding, I drove my kids to school. I get to school, and a teacher said, “Rabbi Schindler can I talk to you?” And they sat me down and they said, “Thank you.” They said, “My relative is gay, and your actions mean the world to me.”
You were, of course, Charlotte’s first woman rabbi, and that trip you took to Washington was with two other clergywomen. Do you think being a woman in the ministry has had an influence on your being an LGBT ally?
I think being a Jewish minority has had an influence on my being an LGBT ally. You know, knowing what it means to be a minority, and knowing what it means to be an oppressed minority in a place where no one is standing up and speaking out against the discrimination or hatred. And because I know that past, I feel an obligation to speak out today.
Why did you decide to become an outspoken LGBT ally?
So my father was born in Munich, Germany, and my grandfather wrote for an underground newspaper against Hitler there. He realized what Hitler was capable of. He read “Mein Kampf,” and he spoke out against Hitler. Soon after being elected, Hitler came to arrest my grandfather. And my grandfather knew what was coming and wasn’t at home that night. He went to sleep at a Jewish hospital and then left the next day. My father remained for five years in Munich with his mom until they could be reunited. So if my grandfather could speak out against injustice in Nazi Germany, then certainly I should feel comfortable speaking out against an injustice that I see.
Slightly off-topic, but there was a Gallup Poll published earlier this year [bit.ly/1pLl1Lf ] that found less than half of all LGBT people are religious, and less than a quarter regularly attend services. Does that concern you at all?
We have a vibrant gay and lesbian community here at Temple Beth El. And I am thankful there are so many LGBT congregants who enrich us and broaden our horizons and make us look at the world in new ways and lift my life with all their passion and compassion and love.
I think it’s sad that some LGBT people reject religion. I understand it because religion has historically rejected those who are LGBT, so there are a lot of obstacles to overcome to re-embrace the community. But to anyone reading this and saying ugh! — religion is not for me, I would say, look again, it might be for you. And if you join us, you can enrich us, we can enrich you, and together we can make an even greater difference in the community.
You’re leaving your post in July of 2016. Is there any moment from your past 17-and-a-half years at Temple Beth El you hope to carry with you the rest of your life?
[pause] The temple has welcomed LGBT members as full members of the community since it passed a resolution in 1998. And the first [same-sex] couple that came to ask for a union ceremony was in 2003. They were a lesbian couple and they said, “Rabbi Judy, will you have a ceremony for us to celebrate the sanctity of our love?” And I thought well, if you’re full members of the congregation, then of course. We have ceremonies to celebrate the sanctity of heterosexual couples and their love, why wouldn’t we have ceremonies to celebrate the sanctity of gay and lesbian couples? So from 2003, we’ve been celebrating same-sex unions here at Temple Beth El.
So that first couple that I married in 2003, one of the partners died. And at the hospital, the lesbian partner couldn’t sign the death certificate because they were not legally married. But there was a very sensitive social worker who had the son sign the forms that the hospital needed signed, and also had the lesbian spouse sign the forms. And at that moment, I realized that something needed to change, that we needed to change the law here to achieve marriage equality.
And then we did achieve marriage equality in North Carolina in October of 2014, and it was on a Friday, and we had just gathered at Temple Beth El for Shabbat. We lifted our cups and toasted that moment. After that, we officiated at many gay and lesbian weddings at the Temple, making legal the ceremonies that we had officiated over the years. I think I’ll never forget that moment of achieving something here in North Carolina that many people never thought was possible.