Michael Schneider: A world Jewry leader who passed away last month

Schneider’s professionalism was all the more impressive because he kept everything under wraps and was very discrete.

 MICHAEL SCHNEIDER delivers a radio address to the Jewish community of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1992 as JDC ran its rescue operations from the besieged city. (photo credit: DORON TASHTIT)
MICHAEL SCHNEIDER delivers a radio address to the Jewish community of Sarajevo, Bosnia in 1992 as JDC ran its rescue operations from the besieged city.
(photo credit: DORON TASHTIT)

‘Why write a book about me? Every IDF soldier deserves a book! They do much more than me,” was Michael Schneider’s opening comment in our meeting in Manhattan in 2017. The book would have focused on his work for the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) for a quarter of a century.

Schneider then quoted from Pirkei Avot (Ethics of the Fathers): “It is not your duty to finish the task, but neither are you free to neglect it.” This was his rationale for taking on various roles. He put into practice the goals of the JDC: Rescue, Relief, Renewal. Just as Schneider’s efforts in rescuing Jews is not known, so too, the work of JDC-Israel is hardly publicized. 

"Why write a book about me? Every IDF soldier deserves a book! They do much more than me.”

Michael Schneider

For two fascinating years (1983-1984), I was a secretary in the director’s office. Schneider became the director of JDC-Israel in 1984. In the months that I worked with him, I was impressed by his professionalism, his respect for colleagues and the staff, and his calm composure. 

Schneider’s professionalism was all the more impressive because he kept everything under wraps and was very discrete. The office staff did not ask questions, although they were aware of the importance of his work.

While working at JDC-Israel, I met people from Israel and the Diaspora who were “walking history books.” They were active during World War II, the establishment of the State of Israel, and some were activists in the 1980s. Among them were intelligence officers, rabbis and educators, all driven to rescue and help others. 

The JDC offices under construction in Jerusalem in August, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)The JDC offices under construction in Jerusalem in August, 2020 (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

We assisted Jews beyond the Iron Curtain and in North Africa with initiatives that strengthened their Jewish identity. The JDC was involved with bringing Ethiopian Jews to Israel in Operation Moses. “All of Israel are responsible for each other,” was their mantra. Our office coordinated the delivery of matzot and wine for Passover to communities in Eastern Europe and North Africa.

My work involved preparing materials for meetings between the senior staff and Israeli government officials. JDC-Israel, the Israel Prize recipient in 2007, spearheaded Israel’s social services infrastructure. Policies are based on research from the Brookdale Institute in the JDC complex in Jerusalem’s Givat Ram.

The idea for a book on Schneider started in 2006 while reading Tom Shachtman’s I Seek My Brethren about Ralph Goldman and the JDC. I learned about the history of programs like ESHEL and ELKA, assistance to Jewish communities, and of course Ralph Goldman’s remarkable biography. 

Goldman, known as “Mr. Joint”, was born in 1914, the same year the organization was founded. He was David Ben-Gurion’s assistant in the US, and helped set up JDC-Israel. Goldman passed away at age 100. 

By reading the book, I appreciated the importance of my work for this organization even more. The book describes the JDC’s operations in different countries. 

His story

MICHAEL SCHNEIDER’S story has a few pages in the book. Born in South Africa, he was involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. He fled for his life to England, where he became a senior social worker in a Jewish organization in London.

Schneider started working for the Joint in 1978, first as director of the Iran office, during the Iranian Revolution, risking his life in operations there. He then helped Iranian Jews in Rome, and directed the JDC beyond the Iron Curtain: Hungary, Chechnya, and Yugoslavia. 

In 1982, he was sent to Ethiopia to the Jewish communities in the Gondar region. He was also behind the scenes of Operation Moshe. Having been the director of JDC-Israel from 1984-1987, he then headed the JDC’s main headquarters in New York until 2002.

Schneider’s international efforts included negotiations with the Yemeni and Syrian governments to allow Jews to leave for Israel or the US. He also assisted Jews in Hungary and Yugoslavia, and negotiated during the war in Bosnia with commanders of Bosnia, Serbia and Croatia, thus enabling Jews and Muslims to leave.

The following is from a review by Amir Shaviv on Stephen Spector’s book Operation Solomon: The Daring Rescue of the Ethiopian Jews: “Schneider, as well as JDC staffers, are highlighted in never-before-revealed details and given a well-documented credit for their work. However, there is enough material to suggest that all three – [Uri] Lubrani, Schneider and [Malcolm] Hoenlein – each deserve a full biography to unveil their rich, but undisclosed, careers.” 

There and then, I decided to write a book on Schneider – in Hebrew – for Israelis to learn about him and his work. I consulted many people who agreed that Schneider merits a book. But how does one convince Schneider himself? For a few years we would email, and he’d politely refuse. Part of it was due to confidentiality about key figures, but mainly due to his humility.

I then read I Am Joseph Your Brother: The Life and Work of Joe Schwartz. The biography (in Hebrew) by Ruth Bachi-Kolodny focuses on Schwartz who headed the Joint in Europe during the Holocaust. He imposed on himself silence and would not write about his important work. I then understood the importance of discretion.

Finally, I met Schneider in 2017, during my visit to New York. We met at the offices of the World Jewish Congress which he headed from 2007-2010. I recalled the person I had worked with over 30 years previously, polite and quiet. He shared that his parents were deaf. Maybe this explained his sensitivity to the needs of others and his hesitant speech.

His grandfather, from Lithuania, was a SHuB, Hebrew acronym for shochet u’bodek (ritual slaughterer and inspector of meat). Like other Lithuanian Jews in the early 20th century, he emigrated to South Africa. Schneider told me that the Jewish name of his wife, Angela, is Tiferet, and that their daughter was documenting the family’s history. 

I understood from our discussion the importance of his work, some of which he had written. Although the idea of the book didn’t take off, it was important for me to meet this modest person who is so far from the limelight.

This article is an excerpt from the writer’s forthcoming book, MiHamishim Kokhavim L’Kokhav Ehad (From Fifty Stars to One Star), about her aliyah as a child from the United States in 1969. It is in Hebrew and will soon also be available in English. 

A virtual memorial tribute in memory of Schneider will take place on Wednesday, December 14, 9-10 a.m. EST.