Gerald Bubis: Unpacking the Life and Legacy of a Communal Giant

By Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

With the passing of Gerald Bubis, one can mark the end of an era in American Jewish communal practice. Bubis’ legacy would be with the formation and growth of the contemporary discipline of Jewish professional service. Covering nearly five decades (1960-2010), his imprint would be present in the framing of the lay-professional connection, in identifying the principles and best practices of Jewish leadership, and in promoting effective organizational management models. Throughout his career as a practitioner and as an educator, Jerry would also serve as a keen observer of the global Jewish scene.

Envisioning a graduate program to train a new generation of Jewish professional leaders, in 1968 he set about to create at the Hebrew Union College a unique multi-disciplinary learning model that would eventually involve the University of Southern California as an educational partner. As a teacher, writer, and consultant, Jerry would interact with the key players on the American Jewish scene, often involving these figures and the major institutions of Jewish life as participants in his endeavor to construct a new framework for Jewish professional learning. In the course of his work, he would personally engage with Jewish organizations and national leadership across the country, helping to reshape American Jewish institutional culture following the Six-Day War (1967) and in the process help create a new American Jewish institutional paradigm, leading to the golden age of American Jewry.

Along with Bernard Reisman’s initiative to launch at Brandeis University the Hornstein Program, Bubis would establish at HUC the School of Jewish Communal Service. This graduate-level program with its distinctive culture and educational framework and philosophy has continued for nearly a half a century to generate Jewish professionals, as it is today known as the Zelikow School of Jewish Non Profit Management.

Drawing upon his imposing stature, Jerry would engage his students by employing the Socratic method, questioning their ideas and assumptions. As a demanding teacher, he sought to infuse his students not only with the discipline of communal practice but also to challenge them to rethink the Jewish condition. Jerry’s students would carry forward his mission and message through their professional contributions to the Jewish people.

His personal passion was always centered on Israel, as expressed through his participation on the board of The Jewish Agency, his active engagement with Peace Now, and his personal connection with the Jerusalem Center for Public Policy, founded by his colleague and friend, Professor Daniel Elazar. In order to recharge his Zionist passions, Bubis would travel to Israel more than 50 times in order to meet with friends and colleagues, to bring his HUC students to experience the pulse and promise of the Jewish State, and to carry forward his professional interests.

Through his travels and teaching, Jerry would interact with the decision-makers of North American and world Jewry. He would lend his expertise and knowledge to a broad array of other Jewish civic policy areas, including his work on the Jewish family, the cost of Jewish living, and the framing of the lay-professional relationship.

His writings, which included some 14 books and more than 170 articles, essays and monographs, represented yet another avenue for him to convey his contributions to the field and provided an outlet for him to reflect on his life. In his most significant publications, many coming in his later years, including “Growing Jews” and “The Director had a Heart Attack and the President Resigned: a Handbook on Board-Staff Relations,” Jerry always sought to forge a coherent message, pressing for institutional excellence and individual accountability.

Behind that more serious Bubis temperament, one would uncover a wonderfully wicked sense of humor and a person with a love for stories. Jerry seemed to always enjoy playing inquisitor, wanting to know what was on your mind and how and where you might be engaged. This pattern of inquiry would carry over to his tenacity for reading and studying, whether in connection with his Chavurot or one-on-one with a colleague or friend.

Writing and working together gave Jerry and I a chance to revisit old assumptions and to construct new dimensions to the story of Jewish communal practice. With the publication of our book, “From Predictability to Chaos?” (2005) we experienced a cross section of acceptance and rejection, as different factions within the communal world would encounter our thinking about the “state” of the federation system. But Jerry was accustomed to controversy and dissent, as I recall during my tenure as JCRC (Jewish Community Relations Committee) Director of the Los Angeles Jewish Federation his willingness to challenge the established positions of the organized Jewish community concerning Middle East policy would often place him in opposition with others. Yet, those who differed with him regarded Jerry with such respect that such conversations were carried forward with great dignity.

Gerald Bubis’ life was lived in a four-part drama where Israel, community, and synagogue represented three of these essential pillars. Jerry’s world was built around his association with Jewish leaders spanning the political and structural landscape of our communal setting; in the course of his lifetime, he was a collector of rabbis whether this involved his professional ties to his HUC rabbinic colleagues, in particular Alfred Gottschalk and David Ellenson, or his long and personal connection with Rabbi Harold Schulweis.

His family and friends would encompass the fourth element of his story, and none was more profoundly important to him than this latter piece. No set of relationships was as significant to him than his special ties to his children and grandchildren, loving sister, and most directly with his dear life partner, Ruby.

A giant in body and stature has left the Jewish stage, yet we draw comfort and a sense of pride that he so richly touched and shaped our community and our lives.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, Los Angeles. For his complete writings, visit: