Off of a Recent Visit to Philly, Jewish Agency Chair Michael Siegal Embraces Change

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Michael Siegal
Michael Siegal (YouTube screenshot)

There’s no denying the Jewish Agency’s impact on the Jewish world.

The aliyot to Israel after 1929 would not have happened at the same level had the agency not been involved — it’s been responsible for bringing an estimated 3 million Jewish immigrants to Israel. Its ties to Israel are undeniable. David Ben Gurion once chaired the executive committee, and the agency has government recognition allowing it to create programs that seemed impossible.

As a body composed of the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Federations of North America (JFNA) and Keren Hayasod, the Jewish Agency is tasked with speaking on behalf of world Jewry to the Israeli government and people.

So what did Michael Siegal, chairman of its board of trustees, say when he was asked to take the job a few years ago?

“Are you kidding me? Why would I do that?” he asked.

Today, he’s glad he did.

Siegal, the executive chairman of Olympic Steel, a large metal services company, who’s also held positions with the Cleveland Jewish Federation and the JFNA, is at the forefront of Diaspora relations to Israel, a monumentally important task as divides between those groups seem to be widening. Siegal, who was recently in town to thank the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia for its continuing support, said that there’s just one way to ensure that world Jewry can ensure its survival: change.

“I’m not an advocate for the status quo,” he said. “If you don’t like change, you’re going to hate extinction.”

A lot has changed since Siegal entered the Jewish nonprofit world years ago. The biggest change, he said, has been social media. More than anything, the interconnectivity of the Jewish world has allowed for smaller, niche cohorts to be created outside the purview of traditional institutions. Whether you like that or not, he said, it is a significant departure, and will require serious resources to study and adapt.

Branding, he said, has become crucial, citing LeBron James, Kim Kardashian and President Donald Trump as having successfully leveraged brands. The Jewish Agency, he said, has an impeccable brand.

“To some degree, just doing the right thing in the new world isn’t enough,” Siegal said. “It’s not a brand if you don’t sell it.”

Israel has also changed from serving as a bedrock of Jewish unity to a site of passionate, emotional discord for many. The Jewish Agency’s job, Siegal said, is to bridge the cultural divide between Israeli Jews and the diaspora; for a long time, that meant thinking about the latter’s obligation to the former.

Now, Israel is a built-up, modern country and, though it still relies on the U.S. for plenty, it is self-sufficient, in many ways. That requires some thought: What is Israeli Jewry’s responsibility to world Jewry?

In Siegal’s view, “philanthropy is not in the psyche of most of the Israeli culture.”

There’s also the question of politics. Most Israeli Jews have an affinity for Trump; most American Jews do not. Even though the former has that affinity, they understand that the relationship he has with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be fragile, Siegal said. And when you throw in the difference in temperament between Trump and Barack Obama?

“Try and explain that to an Israeli,” Siegal laughed.

He does have one fairly helpful ally: Isaac Herzog, the former Labor Party MK and minister of Welfare and Social Services in Israel, and chairman of the Jewish Agency, a job he took following Natan Sharansky’s time in the position. Herzog is a “rock star,” in Siegal’s words.

What Siegal wants more than anything else is for their to be a wider appreciation for the gob-smacking reality of an extant Jewish state in the world. That the Jewish people have undertaken “the experiment of Jewish sovereignty again for the third time in our history,” he said, is nothing less than “a biblical moment.” In a way, that is a problem in itself. “What’s our unifying message when Israel’s there, Israel’s built? What are we supposed to do now?”

What has come to first, he said, is the understanding that “Israel is not a given.”

“My great-grandparents would have been killed, and probably might have been killed, for the fact that they were Jewish without Jewish sovereignty,” he said. “I would never want that for my great-grandchildren.”

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