Temple Beth El’s Schindler leaving senior rabbi post in July 2016 to deepen social justice advocacy

Rabbi Judy Schindler, who has led the Carolinas’ largest synagogue since 2003, says she will leave the post of senior rabbi at Charlotte’s Temple Beth El in July 2016 to focus on social justice and academic pursuits.

Schindler, 48, told the Observer on Tuesday that she plans to stay in Charlotte with her family and said the decision to step down as the leader of the 1,100-family Reform Jewish congregation is “totally, 1,000 percent” hers.

“It’s the hardest decision I’ve ever made,” said Schindler, the first female rabbi in Charlotte. “I love Temple Beth El and I love my congregation. But I’m ready to open a new chapter and go deeper in my areas of passion.”

A high-profile advocate for justice issues, Israel and interfaith cooperation, Schindler said she is writing a book about how to help congregations move from volunteerism to activism.

She said it’s too early to tell exactly what else she might do after stepping down.

Fellow clergy and other Charlotte leaders called Schindler a strong voice for the most vulnerable members of society and said they were encouraged she plans to remain in town.

“She has had a profound impact on the city,” said the Rev. Steve Shoemaker, former pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church, who joined Schindler in 2013 to lead members of both of their congregations on a trip to Israel. “She’s been a champion of justice, an exemplar of Jewish piety and a leader in interfaith relationships, especially between the three Abrahamic faiths.”

Dr. Ophelia Garmon-Brown, a Baptist minister and senior vice president for community partnerships at Novant Health, said it was “a blessing for the community” that Schindler will stay here. “Her work speaks for itself.”

Schindler cited the synagogue’s role in the Shalom Freedom School for at-risk children, its trips to Israel, and its involvement with Room in the Inn, which houses the homeless, and with Mecklenburg Ministries, an interfaith group.

For MeckMin, as it is now called, Schindler worked with Maria Hanlin, then the group’s executive director, on three award-winning documentaries. The films inspired congregations to work in high-poverty schools, advocated for affordable housing and – in the case of “Souls of Our Students,” used by Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools – spotlighted the problem of bullying.

“I’m really proud of what we’ve done,” Schindler said of Temple Beth El-backed initiatives.

Reform Judaism, which originated in Germany in the 1700s, is a more liberal form of Judaism than the Conservative and Orthodox branches. Schindler’s late father, Rabbi Alexander Schindler, was a famous figure in the Reform movement – the largest branch of Judaism in the United States.

As president of the national Reform Judaism association, Alexander Schindler established a towering record on social justice issues. He called on the Jewish community, for example, to welcome interfaith couples and gays and lesbians into synagogue life. Said Garmon-Brown of his daughter, “I think she is just following the spirit within her.”

Schindle acknowledged that, on at least one occasion, her own activism challenged some in her congregation. That was in 2011, when she led a caravan to Washington, D.C., so that Schindler and two other clergywomen could legally marry local same-sex couples.

At the time, such marriages were illegal in North Carolina.

“That was stretching the congregation,” Schindler said, though the Temple Beth El board voted unanimously to oppose Amendment One, a ban on same-sex marriage passed by North Carolina voters in 2012 but thrown out by a federal court last year.

Under Schindler’s leadership, Temple Beth El’s membership and facilities have grown. She said she wanted to stay at the synagogue another 18 months to smooth the transition to the next senior rabbi.

Schindler will be 50 years old when she steps down. Without her current schedule – of weddings, bar mitzvahs, sermons and more – she said, she’ll have “more time to stop and study and research.”

Though she’ll no longer be the senior rabbi, Schindler will continue to be connected to Temple Beth El. The synagogue board has voted to bestow Emeritus status on Schindler, a designation that “will make permanent a relationship with Rabbi Judy going forward, no matter where her path may lead,” temple President Jack Levinson wrote to Beth El members Tuesday.

“We (on the board) were not planning that she would retire in 2016,” Levinson told the Observer. “It was her decision.”

A letter from Schindler explaining that decision also was sent Tuesday to her congregation.