American Jews need to have more babies, says outgoing JFNA chair

Michael Siegal speaks to ‘Post’ ahead of General Assembly in Washington.

MICHAEL SIEGAL. (photo credit: Courtesy)
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Non-Orthodox American Jews must have more babies to ensure the future of their community, according to Michael Siegal, the outgoing chair of the Jewish Federations of North America.
“The one thing that is occurring in the United States which is most damaging is we’re just not having enough babies in the non-Orthodox world, and that’s going to create all kinds of issues for the American Jewish community 30 or 50 years from now,” Siegal told The Jerusalem Post.
“The first law for the Jewish people is to survive; it supersedes everything. Clearly, we’re looking at a diminishing birthrate in the non-Orthodox community, which is going to create all kinds of challenges of survivability.”
Siegal spoke in a telephone interview ahead of the General Assembly of the Jewish Federations of North America, which represents more than 150 Jewish federations and 300 smaller communities in the US and Canada, from Sunday through Tuesday in Washington.
One of the more than 30 “FEDovations” that are being presented at the GA this year is about a “Making Miracle Babies” fertility fund established by the Miami Federation to help finance the high cost of in-vitro fertilization.
FEDovations are a series of sessions in which federations from across North America showcase their work in TED Talk-style presentations to explain how they and their communities are innovatively solving these issues and looking toward the future.
Siegal, who hails from Cleveland, will be replaced as chair during the GA by Richard Sandler, the immediate past chair of The Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles.
Sandler is a past vice chair of the JFNA board and current executive vice president and trustee of the Los Angeles-based Milken Family Foundation.
The keynote speakers at the GA this year, which is expected to attract some 3,000 delegates, include Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, opposition leader Isaac Herzog (who will be interviewed on stage by The Jerusalem Post’s political correspondent Gil Hoffman), and White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough.
Israel and the American Jewish community also need to communicate more effectively, Siegal said. “Both sides of the water, Israel and the United States, have got to listen to each other much better, as opposed to just talk to each other,” he told the Post. “I think in the American Jewish community, we have a vision of Israel that is not necessarily accurate, and vice versa.”
He urged Israeli officials to visit the United States in an attempt to bridge the gap in mutual understanding.
“I think we have to understand that we really are different cultures. Israeli politicians have to understand that they have to come to the ground of the United States, and start to look and listen, and get a sense of the American Jewish narrative,” Siegal said. “When people like Prime Minister Netanyahu, Ronnie Milo, Ehud Olmert and Bennie Begin were young politicians, they came often to the United States to learn about how we connect to each other.
"I think you’ve got a lot of young politicians coming up in the system in Israel who really have no connection to the Diaspora world. As an elected official in Israel, you need to know that you have a responsibility to the Jewish world as well.”
He noted the theme of the GA this year is “Thinking Forward.”
“We often get criticized as a large establishment doing the same old things, so we’re now focused on what we call ‘FEDovation’: How do we get young people more engaged in a more effective fashion? How can we bring a narrative that proves it’s not your grandfather’s organization?” he said.
Siegal said the GA was offering discussions on a diverse range of subjects. “In terms of recognizing what we’re doing for the community, we have different tracks you can sign up for,” he said. “It’s very organized, so if your interest is in aging or security, we have set up the GA so you can follow the track of the greatest interest to you while you’re there.”
According to Siegal, “The most important part of the GA is to give the people who show up the time to speak to each other, to share the best practices of your own community. ‘Here’s where I am doing well in Cleveland, or here’s where I’m doing poorly in Pittsburgh, and let’s talk with each other about how we engage our communities.”
Asked what he had achieved in his three years as chairman, Siegal pointed to what he saw as significant advances made by JFNA in working together with other Jewish organizations.
“When I got to the role, we had some issues with our partners. We have created a much more open dialogue with our partners at the Jewish Agency and Joint Distribution Committee,” he said. “There is now what I’d call ‘shalom bayit,’ respect for everybody’s role. I think we’ve created organizational structure to support the communities of North America, which is our role.”
He said the JFNA leadership had also “done some remarkable things in community support for the anti-BDS movement on campuses.
"What we’ve done on security awareness in the United States is pretty profound, and we’ve also done a lot with Holocaust survivors by lobbying the US government to provide funding for their dignity. We have accomplished a great deal, recognizing we have a mission to support the most vulnerable parts of our communities.”
Siegal advised future leaders to look at the positive side of things.
“We have to listen to the next generation.
"I think Shimon Peres was the author of the quote, ‘We’re a people of great dissatisfaction.’ We have a tendency to look at what we could be doing better as opposed to how much we have done. And so, I think what we have to do, is keep focusing on the positive. And the best example is the BDS movement on college campuses.
"You can say, ‘Look at the rising aspects of BDS,’ as opposed to, ‘In the last year, there were four times more pro-Israel activity on campus than anti-Israel activity.” So you can say, let’s make sure we get it in the face and be anti-BDS, or we can say let’s get the four times more pro-Israel activity to 10 times! So I would always focus on the need to push forward, but not to undersell the success that we’re having by making a substantive addition to the vibrancy of the American Jewish narrative.”
He acknowledged that this year’s Iran deal had divided the American-Jewish community, and said the JFNA had sought to facilitate “an open dialogue.”
“The Iranian dialogue, for want of a better word, created dissonance not only between Washington and Jerusalem, but very much so in the Jewish community itself between the various opinions of how that played out,” he said. “During the Iranian debate, we made ourselves open to dialogue. We represent every color of the rainbow when it comes to the Jewish community. We have far Left, we have far Right, we have everything in between. We try to take a position on a national basis – individual communities took their own stances – by trying to provide our communities with the best and the most accurate information unfiltered by the media. So we arranged any number of meetings, including with the president [Barack Obama] and the prime minister [Netanyahu].”
He said there had been more than 40,000 log-ins to the 15-minute webcast on August 28 of the Jewish leadership session with Obama at the White House, which addressed such questions as “How do we repair the damage? How can we watch the hateful language? How is it we’re stressing mutual respect to the Iranians, while they’re disrespecting us?” “We asked numerous questions that you would not necessarily see in the media, and the White House was welcoming to us and pleased with the outcome,” he said.
Siegal, the chair and CEO of the Cleveland- based Olympic Steel who is also known as a generous philanthropist, said that after stepping down as JFNA chair, he would continue to be involved in the American-Jewish community, with a focus on encouraging Jewish camps for children.
“My personal plan is to continue to be engaged with the Jewish community in a way that I can be most useful,” said the 63-year-old father of three and grandfather of four.
Last year, he and his wife, Anita, established a $1.25 million endowment to send Jewish children to overnight camp.
“We recognize that day school education is too expensive for much of the community, so I’ve been a big supporter of Jewish camps, which I think creates great connectivity to Israel and the Jewish religion,” he said. “We need to put more resources into camping, so I’m going to work to do something about that.”