Writing an article about Shiela Steinman Wallace’s retirement is like trying to summarize 26 years of incredible devotion and dedication to the Jewish community – and the community-at-large – in just a few paragraphs. Having had the honor of working with Shiela for 19 of those years, I can bear witness to her unceasing commitment to task and determination to keep her world abreast of anyone and anything of import.
She has rarely missed attending and reporting on any event of significance in the Jewish community over that time and has never let illness or personal tragedy get in the way of doing her job. She has amassed a remarkable record of achievement, including the creation of an award-winning publication, for which our community has been the beneficiary.
Shiela and her husband, David Wallace, had moved 12 times during the first 10 years of their marriage. They finally moved to Kentucky in 1986 when David accepted a professorship at St. Catharine’s College in Springfield. He commuted from the college to Louisville for 30 years before his retirement so they could live and raise their children in a Jewish environment.
Their son, Glenn, was nine years old and daughter, Sara, was four in 1990 when former Jewish Community Federation of Louisville Executive Director Alan Engel offered Shiela the editor’s job at the Community newspaper. Shiela couldn’t wait to get started and has considered the Community paper her “baby” since June of that year.
“Hiring Shiela turned out to be a wise move and a true benefit for the community,” says Engel. “I remember interviewing a shy, but thoughtful young woman who explained very carefully how she could transform Community into a paper that would benefit the Jewish community in a variety of ways and would become the ‘go to’ place to find out what is happening and the issues facing us locally, regionally and nationally.
“She did all that and more,” he said, “brought order from chaos, improved our revenue stream, enhanced PR and marketing and gave Federation and our agencies the opportunity to share our work with the community. I am very appreciative of all she has done.”
After her very first paper went to press, Shiela discovered that the last bit of an anecdote in a long story had been left out, due to an error by those who pasted up the paper. She quickly priced the cost of equipment to do the job and brought the entire the process in-house – saving the Federation thousands of dollars annually.
She inherited Steve Baker, as her assistant, and the young graphic designer who quickly became indispensable. Baker taught her computer technological as she taught him about newspaper production.
One of his favorite memories of those days was going with Shiela to the Speed Art Museum in the early 1990s to see a special exhibition of historical pieces from New York’s Jewish Museum. While the docent provided information about various items on display, Shiela could not help but offer additional details about them. She had a perspective that even fascinated the docent and we all got an education that day.”
Community became her own and as time went on, and Shiela made it a point to include other writers to balance her own strong voice. Over the years, she worked closely with a number of Federation Board presidents and eventually added speech writing to her repertoire.
“Shiela always surprised me when we were working together,” said past Federation Board President Fred Joseph (1995-98). “Whenever Alan Engel asked me for remarks, I turned to Shiela for help in crafting them. She was like in my head and said she could hear my voice as she wrote.”
Sometimes the presidents’ first ladies got into the act as well. At the beginning of her tenure, Shiela missed taking a photo of past Board President Ron Abrams when he handed his gavel to incoming president Marcia Roth. Shiela was distraught. Ron’s wife, Marie, took Shiela under her wing, set up a substitute photo shoot and assured her that everyone makes mistakes. Marie, a strong leader in her own right with a reputation of being a bit prickly, made Shiela promise not to tell anyone about her softer side. (Shiela told the story now with Marie’s permission.)
Marie, whose activities on behalf of the Jewish community locally and nationally are legendary, has always had great confidence in Shiela’s ability to make even complicated things “sound nice.”
Shiela’s goal has always been to offer substantive information and to communicate it clearly and with transparency. She understood how the paper could make a difference in peoples’ lives – and it has. The Jewish Community Center and Jewish Community of Louisville (JCL) need to communicate effectively in order to ensure a strong Jewish community for the foreseeable future, and Community functions as our voice and prime educational tool to the world.
Although the paper’s change to a monthly format has made it somewhat more difficult to provide timely information on future events, Shiela provides content for www.jewishlouisville.org, keeping it chock-full of timely local, national and international information to bridge the gap.
“Our local community has been blessed with strong leaders over the years” Shiela reflects, “and my job has allowed me to know many of them.” Her work also has taken her to Israel four times to offer first-hand accounts of the situation there. Her trips included a stops in Kiev and Odessa, where she was able to see and report on how Annual Federation Campaign dollars benefit Jewish communities there and around the world.
She witnessed how JDC (Jewish Joint Distribution Committee) volunteers helped stretch those dollars to better the lives of so many who could not survive otherwise. Taking that message to heart, she considers giving to the Campaign a personal commitment. This year, thanks to inheriting her parents’ estate, she increased her pledge to the Lion of Judah level (an annual minimum gift of $5,000 and above).
Karen Abrams, another past Federation president (2013-15), considers Shiela hard-working, extremely devoted to the JCL and the Community paper and always generous with her time and tzedakah. “I consider her,” she said, “the embodiment of the Lion of Judah she has become.”
Reporting on news stories, especially those about individuals with whom you develop a rapport, can be deeply personal. Shiela has often had such relationships and especially remembers interviewing a 90-year-old woman, Rose Hansen, on the occasion of her becoming a Lion of Judah. Rose was wearing a lovely gold necklace given to her by her husband and she showed Shiela a menorah the two had rescued from the Holocaust. After Shiela shared a draft of her story, Rose remarked, “Who gave you the eyes to see into my soul?” The two became friends and Rose gave Shiela her treasured necklace as a gift.
Prior to coming to Community, Shiela served on the board of Eliahu Academy when her son was a student and, with her husband, was a Bingo captain.
She has a strong interest in interfaith relations, and in the early 2000’s, joined the local Religion Communicator’s Council (RCC) chapter and soon after was asked to serve as the local chapter’s president. Concerned that the group presented as an interfaith organization but was run more as a Christian-based initiative, she took her concerns to the RCC’s national board and was invited to join their ranks to help the organization become a more inclusive. She changed the culture of the organization, and, on occasion, was able to provide her colleagues who worked for faith groups with anti-Israel platforms information about Israel with which they were not familiar.
Of all the organizations to which Shiela has given her time and talents, Temple Shalom is probably the closest to her heart. She became a member during her first year in Louisville when the temple was located in a house on Taylorsville Road. She approached Rabbi Stanley Miles and asked if he needed a Hebrew teacher and she ended up teaching sixth grade classes for over 25 years. When the congregation built a structure on Lowe Road, then Choir Director Anne Niren recruited her for the choir. Eventually, she became the Shabbat morning volunteer song leader, and has been doing it for years. She began composing liturgical music and now has about 40 copyrights. A grant from the Kentucky Foundation for Women allowed her to write and produce a sacred service for Temple Shalom’s 25th anniversary.
“Shiela did me a huge favor with the choir,” says Niren, and it worked both ways. Another person might have said he or she was too busy, but she is the most driven and motivated person I have ever met. As the editor and voice of the Jewish community, she will be hard to replace.”
Former Temple Shalom rabbi, Stanley Miles, agrees. “I have known Shiela for over a quarter of a century, and her intellect, integrity and creativity have constantly enhanced our community and her congregation. She is, in so many ways, a bracha!”
“Shiela came to work at the Federation a couple of months before I did,” says Jewish Community of Louisville Executive Director Sara Wagner, “so I have always felt a personal connection with her as our Federation/JCL experiences and careers continued to grow and the community changed and evolved. I watched Shiela go from covering stories to becoming an active and involved member of the Jewish community.
“For over 26 years,” she continued, “she has been Jewish Louisville’s storyteller and has quietly, and in her own way, shared the news, happenings, celebrations and highs and lows of the entire community. She has an immeasurable amount of respect for the news and the life stories she has shared. Mentored and inspired by the late Herman Landau, we are forever grateful to Shiela for taking the lead and assuming responsibility for preserving our community’s stories and history.”
Although she is retiring from her “paid job,” Shiela plans to become an active JCL volunteer. Her flexible timeframe will allow her to work with the local Jewish Community Relations Council and continue working to establish a formal archive for the Louisville Jewish community.
She and David also plan to travel a bit and spend more time with their daughter, Sara, a third-year law student at the University of Arizona, and her husband, Ross Levine, and with their daughter-in-law, Carla, and grandchildren Madeline and Gavin in Louisville.
Additional comments from colleagues and friends can be found at https://jewishlouisville.org/shiela-retirement/.