September 18, 2018

A communal ‘Tzedek’ who studies power

In 2006, after leading the search for a new dean for the Los Angeles campus of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Steven Windmueller was himself awarded the position, becoming the first non-rabbi dean of an HUC-JIR campus. 

Two years later, when the national economy nosedived and the L.A. campus was slated to be shuttered, Windmueller might have regretted taking the reins. But instead, as the man in charge, he organized a robust — and ultimately successful — campaign to save it. 

“Steven really fought the fight and galvanized everybody,” said Marla Abraham, who worked with Windmueller for 11 years at HUC-JIR’s School of Communal Service. “Not in the ‘general on the horse’ way, but in his quiet, deliberate, precise way.”

Throughout his career, Windmueller has often had to respond to crises, and his years as dean are just one reason that the Los Angeles chapter of Ameinu is presenting Windmueller with the Tzedek Award at its annual gala on Nov. 28. Ethel Taft, a member of the event’s organizing committee, said Windmueller’s academic work studying the Jewish community was as important to his selection as his work as a Jewish communal leader. 

“He brings a special quality, and very appropriate insights into what the issues are facing our Jewish community and American Jews nationally,” said Taft, a member of Ameinu’s local leadership. “And we thought it was time the community said ‘thank you’ for all he’s done in the past and, hopefully, for what he will do in the future.” 

Windmueller, 70, began his career earning a doctorate in international relations from the University of Pennsylvania but was persuaded by a friend who worked for American Jewish Committee (AJC) to move away from scholarship and work for the Jewish community. After a stint at AJC, Windmueller moved to Albany, N.Y., in 1974 to lead that city’s Federation. In 1985, he moved to Los Angeles to head the Jewish Community Relations Council (JCRC), a position he held until 1995.

“Those years, we would have to classify as intense,” Windmueller said, speaking to the Journal by phone in early November on a quick stop back in Los Angeles between two separate speaking engagements in the Midwest. “Between the Intifada and the Soviet Jewry movement, the Northridge earthquake — and a host of other issues, both domestic and international — it was an extraordinary moment.”

As JCRC director, Windmueller said his key task was to build relationships, both within the local Jewish community and with other communities, often at tumultuous times. In 1992, following the announcement of the not-guilty verdict for the police officers involved in the Rodney King beating, Windmueller was asked by the mayor’s office, along with Rabbi Laura Geller, to go for an evening gathering at the First AME Church, in South Los Angeles. The event was aimed at fostering cross-ethnic, interreligious and racial connections, but it took place just as the riots were beginning. 

“It was a very difficult evening, to say the least,” Windmueller said of the service, which eventually helped pave the way for his involvement in conversations with leaders from both the Korean- and African-American communities to talk about preventing future violence and how to direct rebuilding efforts. 

Windmueller’s ability to engage the right people and forge connections would ultimately prove essential to his work defending the HUC-JIR campus from the threat of closure. 

“He was able to put his relationships and partnerships into action, rallying efforts on behalf of the campus so that the total voice in the West bore more weight than the sum of the individual voices,” Joshua Holo, Windmueller’s successor as HUC-JIR dean, wrote in an e-mail. Windmueller also brought “a basis of substance and trust” in communicating with the various constituencies of HUC-JIR in Los Angeles, Holo wrote. 

But Windmueller himself downplays his role in helping to save and stabilize the Los Angeles campus, emphasizing instead the students who mobilized with “energy and chutzpah” on behalf of their campus, as well as the work of other influencers. 

“There were many leaders, not just on the West Coast,” Windmueller said, “who appreciated the fact that if such academic institutions are allowed to fall apart, then the entire community is a loser, is denied a certain level of culture, of intellectual and spiritual growth.” 

Such humility is characteristic of Windmueller, according to Gerald Bubis, who founded HUC-JIR’s School of Communal Service, now called the School of Nonprofit Management. 

“He’s a remarkable guy, and very modest” said Bubis, who was succeeded by Windmueller in 1995. 

“He and his wife are also very, very generous,” Bubis added, referring to the Windmuellers’ support for college students studying to be teachers’ aides through a scholarship at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Since stepping down as dean in 2010, Windmueller has now returned to his academic roots. 

He is writing a book about Jewish power, looking at the two very different types of power structures that have existed in the American Jewish community over the course of the last two and a quarter centuries.

The first period, he said, began around 1880, and saw the creation of the Federation-based model, “a communal system that was very successful.” 

Over the past few decades — the same ones Windmueller witnessed both as a professional and as a scholar of the Jewish community, the Federation-centered Jewish world, which he called a “crisis-based system,” has given way to the new model that exists today, he said. 

In the future, with many more diffuse groups representing a far more individualized community, Windmueller said that American Jewry “will look differently, it will behave differently, and it will be far less coherent.”

But, he was quick to add, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the American Jewish community won’t continue to band together during tough times. 

“One of the keys to Jewish history is that there are always these pushes and pulls,” Windmueller said, “like the individualism versus the collective impulse to be responsive to a crisis.”