Ex-Antioch resident becomes head of the Peace Corps

The first boy to celebrate a bar mitzvah at the now-defunct Beth Israel Community Center in the East Bay was sworn in last Friday as the new director of the Peace Corps.

Mark Schneider, who lived in Antioch as a teen in the 1950s and graduated from U.C. Berkeley in 1963, became the first practicing Jew to head the Peace Corps when he was selected last month by President Clinton to be the organization's 15th director.

This week, on his first Monday on the job, Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) stopped by to offer congratulations.

The senator's visit was a fitting beginning to Schneider's week: The Peace Corps was created by Kennedy's late brother, President John F. Kennedy, in 1961. And Schneider was one of Edward Kennedy's staff members from 1970 to 1977.

Kennedy had been unable to attend Schneider's formal swearing-in ceremony last Friday.

But Schneider's 81-year-old mother, Ruth, did attend the festivities, making the long trip to Washington, D.C., from her home in Walnut Creek's Rossmoor retirement community, despite undergoing knee surgery recently.

"It was absolutely beautiful," Ruth Schneider said Tuesday. "People that Mark knew from almost every place he had worked on Capitol Hill were there. There were also about 22 people from his Peace Corps group [which served in El Salvador from 1966 to 1968] that came from all over the country."

Schneider, 58, is only the second director to have actually served in the Peace Corps. He and his wife, Susan, then married for one year, served in San Salvador, where they helped build a bridge across a ravine and introduced a school milk program.

His years in El Salvador reflected the Peace Corps motto: "The toughest job you'll ever love."

He described it as "the most illuminating, rewarding and exhausting period of my life. I saw the constant struggle to survive in the developing world — children without enough to eat, mothers without access to health care, fathers unable to find work to earn the income to care for their families."

Schneider's late father, Ben, was the president of the Beth Israel Community Center, a Conservative group in Pittsburg that Ben and Ruth helped start along with about 40 other families in 1954. The Schneiders had just moved west from New Jersey, and Mark was 12-1/2 years old.

"It wasn't called a congregation because we didn't have a regular rabbi, but we had lay people come out to lead services," said Ruth, who now volunteers at the Contra Costa Jewish Community Center in Walnut Creek.

Beth Israel lasted for about a dozen years, she said, until some of its members started Congregation B'nai Shalom in Walnut Creek.

Her son excelled in academics and activities at Antioch High School, where he played football and baseball. He also belonged to the drama club and was a class salutatorian.

He received a four-year scholarship to attend U.C. Berkeley, where he majored in journalism. He also earned a master's in political science from San Jose State.

Schneider and his wife, residents of Cleveland Park in the capital district, are members of Reform Temple Sinai in Washington.

They have two grown children, Miriam, an undergraduate at Duke University who last year spent her junior year living with a Jewish family in Spain, and Aaron, a graduate student at U.C. Berkeley. Schneider also has two brothers, Bruce, who lives in Alameda, and Arthur, in Portland, Ore.

The Peace Corps sends American volunteers to developing countries for two-year stints to improve education, health and environmental conditions, and to promote other human service projects. With a $244 million annual federal budget, the Peace Corps now sends 7,000 volunteers and trainees to 78 countries.

Schneider was most recently assistant administrator for Latin America at the U.S. Agency for International Development. Schneider has also served as a senior policy adviser to the director of the Pan American Health Organization and a deputy assistant secretary of state for human rights during the Carter administration.

For all of the heady responsibilities as a high-ranking Washington official, Schneider is a humble man who says his mother motivated his career in public service.

At his swearing-in, Schneider said his mother "taught me what is fair, what is just and how to treat others with empathy, concern and kindness."

Schneider credits his parents and their Jewish values with propelling him to undertake the grueling conditions of life in the Peace Corps.

"I actually do think that the ethics and values that come out of my religious background are reflected in what the Peace Corps does and what the Peace Corps is," he said.