Memories and Reflections

One professional’s 50-year journey

After serving in the Jewish communal space for 50 years, I thought it helpful to reflect on my career and share some of my experiences and insights. I found myself thinking about my path which led me to more than my share of extraordinary encounters and transformational historic moments. This is the second of a two-part series reflecting on my tenure of service. The first part dealt with leadership challenges; in this piece we are introducing a series of on-the-ground experiences.

Building Community: Meeting George S. would help to transform a community (Albany, N.Y.) as this very private individual would by his generosity help inspire a community to establish an endowment campaign that would reshape Jewish life in that setting. George S. was a small donor to the federation and had not played any significant role in the community, yet we were able to convince him of the importance of estate planning and with that came a significant gift to the federation. This initial gift would help to launch the Albany federation’s (now the Federation of Northeastern New York) endowment fund. 

Advocating for Israel and More: Standing in Lebanon with Jewish leaders and Israel Defense Forces in 1982 and coming to grips with the realities concerning Israel’s security situation would represent a transformative moment, as would the various opportunities to bring key non-Jewish leaders to the Jewish state, including entertainment and business leaders, Catholic bishops and other church officials, allowing that society to tell its story and in turn witnessing the extraordinary reactions of these visitors. Meeting and hosting Israeli prime ministers, cabinet and Knesset Members, as well as Congressional figures, presidential candidates, media and press representatives and more would remind one of the value-added of the interplay of these figures with community leaders and the broader society.  

During our time in Lebanon (1982) and later during our visits along Israel’s northern border,  we would be introduced to Christians whose lives and communities inside Lebanon had been threatened by the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization). Our meeting with General Ariel Sharon gave context to the complexities of this military situation. Indeed, despite the criticism of Sharon’s leadership, what appeared particularly striking was his charm and understanding of the limitations of the military.  No doubt, this war would prove to be controversial both inside Israel and beyond.

Bringing Jews to Freedom: Being a part of the Soviet Jewry campaign for human rights would take me to Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kiev, Odessa and Washington.  There are many side bar stories to this saga, as for example, trying to connect with the “Refuseniks” while in Russia, learning to outwit KGB agents, or having one’s luggage confiscated, as mine was, since authorities sought to prevent us from bringing Jewish ritual objects.

By way of background, those of us traveling to the Soviet Union went through a rigorous Russian language immersion. We also studied the Moscow subway system, in order to know where we would be meeting our contacts, as a way to avoid Soviet security officers. We identified high density areas such as the Moscow Circus as possibly a safe public space where we might meet with certain families. As my travel partners were African Americans, one the head of the L.A. Urban League and the other a local news commentator, they would draw far less attention as they simply “operated” as tourists. As a result, my colleagues managed to move about securing taped interviews and hosting meetings with Refuseniks without harassment.

Being Present in the Moment: As CRC directors visiting Israel in 1987, we were invited to greet two arriving aircraft at Ben Gurion during the middle of the night as we welcomed Jews arriving simultaneously from Ethiopia and Russia. During this period, Jews from Ethiopia were forced to travel over land to safe areas where the Joint Distribution Committee could assist these refugees in getting to Israel. Correspondingly, depending on the state of U.S.-Soviet relations, Jews in various numbers were allowed to leave the USSR. And there would be many other meaningful experiences, whether being in Jerusalem, Berlin, Washington, Sacramento or Los Angeles.

Encountering History: I had occasion over the years to travel to Germany multiple times, often taking HUC students and alumni. On one of our trips, our host told all of us to dress in our finest! Why? When we entered the Hotel Elephant in Weimar and were seated in the elegant restaurant of the hotel, our tour guide informed us that we were seated in Hitler’s favorite place to dine in this historic city. As she noted, while raising her wine class, we are here as Jews, free and thriving, while Hitler is no more, with his ideology discredited.

Healing Society: Joining thousands of LA citizens as we formed a human chain across the city on behalf of Hands Across Los Angeles Counseling community representatives, families, and individuals in the aftermath of the 1992 L.A. Civil Unrest. Following the riots, our community had several goals: how could we best assist other local communities, especially the Korean community that had been adversely impacted by the violence; how could we leverage the Jewish community’s influence in helping to create calm, build relationships among key ethnic and racial groups, in particular African American and Asian American leaders, leading to an educational trip to South Korea some years later.

Experiences beyond the Community:  In China, when giving my five lectures at various universities in 2014, my hosts expressed concern that I might include some negative statements about the government. While my wife and I were never worried about our safety, it was evident that with each lecture Communist Party representatives were seated in the audience. We often played a game as to which individual in the lecture hall was the designated government official. In the end, we believed that such individuals were assigned to these presentations more so to observe faculty and student behaviors than that of the speaker.

Memorable Experiences: There were times when we encountered challenging experiences, so posted below are three such reference points:

Story One: While serving on the Albany (N.Y.) City Human Relations Commission, I had introduced a resolution critical of the Rev. Louis Farrakhan. A day or two later I would be visited by the Reverend’s “representatives” whose mere presence scared our staff. Their appearance would prove to be a not-so-subtle warning. It was a stark reminder that actions can have consequences and can produce threats. 

Story Two: On April 29, 1992, I had been called upon by then Mayor Tom Bradley to rally with other civic and religious leaders at the First AME Church, in the aftermath of the Rodney King verdict.  Rioters were already roaming the streets of LA, where burning and looting were beginning to take place.

Joined by my American Jewish Congress colleague at the time, our exit from the church that evening would prove to be one of the scarier moments. It was determined by some of the church leaders that it would be best for us to exit the facility from a side entrance and to use back streets to avoid the violence taking place on the main streets. We will always be grateful to those church members who helped us vacate the Jefferson Park area that eventful night. 

Story Three: We would uncover that our L.A. Jewish Community Relations Committee offices had been bugged. Over time, we had identified that there were unexpected noises and clicks on our phone lines when we were on calls. We asked federation security to check our phones both in our offices and at our homes; it was at that point that we realized that our phones had been compromised. But by whom and for what reason? We had our suspicions, no clear evidence ever surfaced!


Whether it was the L.A. Riots (1992) or the Northridge Earthquake (1994),  I was particularly proud of the responsiveness and resourcefulness of our Jewish community. For example, in the aftermath of the earthquake, the federation mobilized a task force to assist families in need, support our social service agencies and coordinate recovery efforts with local city services.

Indeed, there remain core take-aways from each and every encounter:

  • The ability to be present and responsive in meeting core needs. 
  • One may never know how a particular encounter can change an institution, alter a relationship or open new opportunities for individuals.
  • To appreciate these extraordinary experiences and the many incredible personalities one would meet along the way

Steven Windmueller is an emeritus professor of Jewish communal studies and currently serves as the interim director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management at the Jack H. Skirball Campus of HUC-JIR. His writings can be found on his website: www.thewindreport.com.