Rabbi Judy Schindler, who leads the largest Reform congregation in the Carolinas, is the latest, and most passionate, in a long line of Charlotte clergy to speak out for social justice
On a Tuesday night in March, there is an overflow crowd at the McColl Family Theater in ImaginOn for Levine Museum of the New South’s “A Woman’s Place” event, where newly installed Davidson College president Carol Quillen is giving the keynote address. But it’s safe to say that the majority of the attendees are here to honor Charlotte’s 2011 Woman of the Year, Rabbi Judy Schindler.
Around Charlotte, the woman acknowledged for her passion for causes that have bedeviled society for ages—civil rights, gay rights, affordable housing, poverty, racial mistrust—is known simply as Rabbi Judy.
“Through fortitude and strong conviction, Rabbi Judy stands up for children, for people in poverty, for people of color,” says Carol Hardison, executive director of Crisis Assistance Ministry, in her introduction. Schindler strides on stage dressed in a bold striped dress, sporting her trademark bob. She begins her acceptance speech with an admission: as a rabbinical student, she was terrified of public speaking. That’s hard to believe coming from one of Charlotte’s most prominent voices. Her speech is part thank you, part lesson on kol isha—Hebrew for “the voice of a woman.”
In traditional Judaism, women could not be religious leaders because rabbis believed their voices had the power to distract men.
“The rabbis were correct in their assessment that the voice of a woman has power,” she tells the audience in an accent that betrays her New York–area roots. “A woman’s voice has power when it is in dialogue with a man’s voice to debate the challenges our community and country are facing and to decide on the best path to take, when it is in dialogue with society, when it speaks not only to the children inside the home but to all children.”
Schindler speaks with an authority and confidence honed by years of sermons. “Kol isha. A woman’s voice has impact when it joins in the chorus of those who cry out for the equality for all human beings: educational equity, racial equality, economic opportunity, and religious freedom for all—when it demands the divine image within every human being be acknowledged and respected.” She brings the crowd to its feet several times.
A week later, Schindler is in a different kind of spotlight, as she and thirty other Charlotte-area clergy rally at the corner of Trade and Tryon against Amendment One, the now-passed ballot initiative that focuses mainly on preventing same-sex marriage. Flanked by supporters holding a “Standing On the Side of Love” banner, Schindler tells the crowd, “We are here to protect the strangers from those who see our LGBT brothers and sisters as outsiders and want to dehumanize them.”
She pushes back against hecklers who are chanting scripture in an attempt to drown out the speakers. “This is a dangerous law. It discriminates. It alienates,” she says in a voice that seems almost too big for her size.
John Cleghorn, pastor of Caldwell Presbyterian Church, got to know Schindler when their children attended school together. Opposition to Amendment One is just one of many community and social issues on which the two have worked together. “Charlotte has had a long tradition of people of faith speaking out,” says Cleghorn. “Those voices have sort of come and gone over the years. Right now, the voices for advocacy and justice have been brought out more clearly through some of the debates underway in the community like sexuality or homelessness and poverty. Even though Judy and I come from different faith traditions, we share a common understanding of how scripture can be an agent of justice.”
“We’re proud of everything she does in the community,” says Temple Israel’s Rabbi Murray Ezring. “She is living the life and presenting the values that Judaism has stood for since our people were created—that every human being is created in the image of God and deserves the same respect as any other human being.”
Schindler tries to put the praise in perspective. “Politicians have to try to speak to both sides,” she says. “As clergy, I can search deep inside my soul and speak the truth as I see it without worrying about who’s going to vote for me. I want to help Charlotte become that vision of the New South that doesn’t divide and creates a community for all of us.”