Since 1973, there have been nine Israeli prime ministers, seven American presidents, and one constant at Philadelphia's Jewish Community Relations Council: Burt Siegel, who will step down on Nov. 3 from his post as executive director of the organization he's served for 35 years.
In a career that's seen the easing of tensions between Philadelphia's Jewish and African-American communities, and the strengthening of ties between Jewish and Christian communities (among others), Siegel said that "intergroup relations in Philadelphia, while far from perfect, have always been quite good. I like to think I had a role in that."
Siegel joined JCRC in October 1973 (starting work the week the Yom Kippur War erupted), as director of social action and urban affairs. Prior to joining the committee, he worked in Atlanta as southeastern area director for the American Jewish Committee.
"This represents the passing of an era," said Barry Morrison, director of the Philadelphia chapter of the Anti-Defamation League, who has known Siegel since 1981.
"He's one of a rare breed of people who can be considered a community-relations professional," Morrison said of Siegel. "There's not many people like that — it's a highly specialized field."
That dedication to community relations and tikkun olam goes back to his childhood, Siegel said.
"The Talmud says we don't have to complete the perfecting of the world, but we can't desist from it, either," he noted.
"Those ideas, which were implanted in my head as a child and as a young man, have informed my work. It's why I do what I do."
Farrakhan Visit Causes a Flare-Up
One of Siegel's major successes came in 1997 during a flare-up in racial anxiety regarding a visit to Philadelphia by Louis Farrakhan. With tensions between the city's Jewish and African-American communities heightened, Siegel met with leaders of the different communities to try to calm nerves. He said he had tried to approach the issue under the mindset of "Let's think together as to how to minimize the damages."
"In a mutually respectful relationship, [there's] a greater opportunity for sensitivity to issues of Jewish importance," he said.
Siegel also has worked closely with the members and leaders of various Christian communities, often leading them on missions to Israel.
"Taking non-Jewish leaders to Israel is priceless," Siegel said, championing the fact that, "by now, there must be 50 or 60 non-Jews in Philadelphia who have paid their own way to go to Israel under the auspices of the JCRC."
That advocacy for the Jewish state is not lost on current JCRC chair Marc Zucker: "In the arena of Israel advocacy, Burt has established credibility with the non-Jewish community, who come to see Israel through his eyes and understand the Jewish perspective more clearly. "
But despite the successes, Siegel also acknowledged shortcomings.
"We have outstanding leadership at JCRC, but we haven't yet attracted the next generation," a feat he hopes his successor will be able to achieve.
He lamented that younger people today are not as attracted to the field as they once were, and said that, in some ways, Jews as a community often feel so comfortable that "we don't do all we can to make friends and allies."
"Look, we're 2 percent of the population," he said. "For Jews not to care what's happening [to that other 98 percent] is beyond foolishness."
Biblical Motif Inspired Him
Siegel said it was no accident that the Tanach repeatedly reminds Jews to remember what it was like to be a stranger in Egypt, a motif that carries over greatly to the field of community relations.
"How much more of a responsibility do we have to our neighbor, if we have a responsibility to those who have malevolent intents?"
Siegel's successor will encounter plenty of challenges, not the least of which will be helping to combat gun violence in Philadelphia.
"If the 400 or so people [killed annually by guns on Philly streets], who are largely African-American, were Jewish, we would consider it to be a crisis, a tragedy of the highest order."
But, if Jews have responded less than he would have liked to this problem, Siegel had high words for the community's response to the ongoing genocide in Darfur, Sudan.
"I'm proud of the work Philadelphia Jews have done for Darfur, but I wish there were more people speaking out and doing more," he said. "Whether we were looking for it or not, there was a genocide going on live on television," he said, adding that many Jews had been impelled to act on the Darfurian genocide in part because of what they see as a lack of early response to the Shoah.
Siegel's last day in the office will be Nov. 3, and he'll vote on Nov. 4, but as far as plans beyond that, he's not sure.
"Part of my problem may be there are so many things I'm interested in," he said. His office walls are a testament to his passions, whether it be politics, African masks or the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Whatever he ends up doing, Siegel's 35-year tenure will be honored on Oct. 29 with a retirement reception. But he was quick to point out to organizers that he only wanted a party if it was done with a larger purpose in mind; thus, the gathering will also kick off the Burt Siegel Fund for Interfaith Leadership Missions to Israel.
"If the end of my career here can be used to further the idea of non-Jewish leaders learning more about Israel," noted Siegel, "that's extremely important to me."