‘I wish Israel would have a better appreciation of the fact that it even exists’

An interview with Michael Siegal, former board chair of the Jewish Agency, upon receiving the Presidential Medal of Honor

 President Isaac Herzog presents Michael Siegal with the Presidential Medal of Honor on December 11, 2022. (photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)
President Isaac Herzog presents Michael Siegal with the Presidential Medal of Honor on December 11, 2022.
(photo credit: HAIM ZACH/GPO)

“I do wish that Israel would have a better appreciation of the fact that it even exists,” Michael Siegal said on Sunday, just hours before he was bestowed with the Presidential Medal of Honor by President Isaac Herzog.

Siegal, former board chair of the Jewish Agency as well as former board chair of the Jewish Federations of North America, was one of five people awarded the prestigious medal, the highest civil medal awarded by the president.

Alongside Siegal, songwriter and poet Rachel Shapira, Brig.-Gen. (ret.) Pinhas Buchris, Arab-Israeli educator Dalia Fadila and youth educator Haim Perry received the medal.

Herzog has presented the prize to US President Joe Biden, President of the Czech Republic Miloš Zeman, and President of Cyprus Nicos Anastasiades.

“With all of the problems, how much better our lives are in the world because we have a Jewish nation. I wish that for some reason, people can understand more, for all their criticisms, that the Jewish nation’s existence is not a given for the next generation. I also wish that Israel would appreciate the fact that not everybody is making aliyah and that the Diaspora has a place at the table, for Israel to be better in itself,” Siegal said. “In addition, this inevitable conflict between the religious and the secular has to be resolved before it leads to very difficult problems.”

 Chairman of The Jewish Agency’s Board of Trustees Michael Siegal (credit: ALON MOR) Chairman of The Jewish Agency’s Board of Trustees Michael Siegal (credit: ALON MOR)

At the ceremony on Sunday evening, Herzog hailed Siegal’s leadership in Jewish organizations.

“Leadership is tested in moments of crisis,” Herzog said. “Throughout his rich and multi-faceted career and during decades in a number of the most senior positions in Jewish organizations, Siegal harnessed his wonderful abilities as a leader, as a manager and as a man of connections, to empower the people around him, to strengthen the global Jewish community and to strengthen the ties between the Diaspora and the State of Israel,” Herzog said.

Standing alongside fellow leaders

The president shared with the audience that he “stood by Michael’s side,” and “saw his leadership and giving up close, in particularly complex moments, when Jewish communities were dealing with pain, terrorist attacks and with the high implications of the COVID-19 pandemic.” Herzog said Siegal acted “like a captain steering his ship safely through the storms of the sea.”

“I am deeply honored and humbled to be receiving this award,” said Siegal. “I am proud to stand on the shoulders of those who created and prayed for a Jewish nation to exist. It is a privilege to be alive when Israel is reaching its 75th anniversary and along with my fellow recipients, to have played our small part in assisting the advancement of the Jewish people and the state.”

Siegal is the executive chairman of Olympic Steel. He served as the chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency for Israel from 2017-2022, the chair of Jewish Federations of North America from 2012-2015, the chair of the Board of the Jewish Federation of Greater Cleveland from 2010-2013 and the chair of Israel Bonds from 2005-2010. Siegal, along with his wife, Anita, helped establish the Michael and Anita Siegal One Happy Camper Scholarship Fund with the Foundation of Jewish Camping.

“I’ve proudly chaired three of the major Jewish organizations in the Jewish world,” Siegal said. “So early in my life, when I was 32 years old, I chaired Israel Bonds, the Development Corporation for Israel (DCI). I later was chairman of the Cleveland Jewish Federation and went back to our local communities and then became the chair of the Jewish Federations of North America for four and a half years. They then recruited me to the Jewish Agency as chairman for five years or so. So [this award] is an acknowledgment of a lifetime of leadership, these are things that have probably been reflected.”

Siegal said he was proud to come from Cleveland, which has a history of producing leaders of Jewish organizations.

“There’s an amazing history of leadership for Cleveland, Ohio,” Siegal said. “That goes through from Jewish education that goes through the JDC, the Jewish Agency, the Jewish Federation system, Israel Bonds, World ORT and other organizations. Cleveland has this ability to encourage not just local Jewish leadership but also Jewish leadership in a platform of global discussions. As a result, young people in Cleveland’s Jewish community are not afraid to express their opinions, but they do it in a Midwestern way,” he laughed.

Asked if he was planning on volunteering in the leadership of other Jewish organizations, Siegal said “you never take a break from the Jewish world,” and that “there’s a couple of opportunities that are in front of me and it’s got to be meaningful. I need to do something that can make a difference and not just go to meetings. I’ve got to be able to be at a table where at least years of my talent and experience can help that organization for counsel and things that I really care about – which is the collective Jewish people.”

Siegal explained that he has implemented many skills from the business world in the organizations he led.

“My attitude is if you don’t have the resources to do it well, you shouldn’t do it at all. The narrative of what I bring to the table is explaining that many times, the resources you have coming in, don’t match the organization’s mission. Too often I have found organizations do things that have nothing to do with their mission.”

As an example, Siegal said that as chairman of the Jewish Agency, he realized there was deficit spending after his first year on the job. “We were spending more money than we had and I told them that this cannot continue.” He added that in partnership with the union, “we unfortunately had to move forward with layoffs and go through a whole new strategic planning process that asked: ‘What can we do?’

 Likud head MK Benjamin Netanyahu is seen receiving the mandate to form Israel's next government from Israeli President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Likud head MK Benjamin Netanyahu is seen receiving the mandate to form Israel's next government from Israeli President Isaac Herzog. (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

“We gave up a number of things that we were doing and then we had to sell assets, because we had tremendous assets that were of significant value that generated no income and we needed the income,” Siegal said. He stressed that “in the narrative of what Israelis don’t like, which is to sell property, it turned us into an incredibly sustainable and well-funded organization.”

One of the challenges that Siegal said he still sees in the Jewish Agency’s work is the lack of connectivity “of Israelis to the Diaspora or the Diaspora to Israelis.”

He said there is “misperception on both sides of the water,” and explained that “if you’re reading the American press, you would think that the incoming government is the worst thing that ever happened to Israel.”

He continued by stating that “rather than understanding that there was a democratic process and ‘let’s see how it works out,’ what the press creates is a narrative of disruption.”

“Somebody’s got to make sure that we keep this all together as a collective Jewish responsibility of the experiment of having a Jewish nation,” he explained. “And that’s what the Jewish Agency’s challenges are. Somebody’s got to be able to have a table where Jews of the world come together to express their concerns to the Israeli government and where the government will listen to the Diaspora, in a way that is respectful.”

Siegal led the long and difficult election of the Chairman of the Jewish Agency Doron Almog.

The process took more than a year since most candidates failed to receive the nine votes needed from the selection committee.

“Every change is always difficult,” he said of the successor of Herzog in the agency. “You had a huge personality of Isaac Herzog who goes from politics to the Jewish Agency to the President’s Office, and now it's Doron Almog, who is relatively unknown outside of Israel and doesn’t have the political skill and background. Yet in Israeli society, Almog is a hero.” He added that the transition “is good for the organization, and that you never want an organization that has one leader for 50 years, since then, the leader becomes bigger than the organization.

“There's a couple of opportunities that are in front of me and it's got to be meaningful. I need to do something that can make a difference and not just go to meetings. I've got to be able to be at a table where at least years of my talent and experience can help that organization for counsel and things that I really care about - which is the collective Jewish people.”

Michael Siegal

Jewish Federations of North America President & CEO Eric Fingerhut said Siegal is an exemplary role model who has worked tirelessly to strengthen the Jewish community and the bonds between North American Jewry and the State of Israel.

“I am inspired by Michael’s vision, leadership and commitment to serving the Jewish people, and this award is a celebration for our entire federation system.”

Jewish Federations of North America Board Chair Julie Platt said Herzog’s deep commitment to Diaspora Jewry and recognition of the unique role the communities play in Israel’s ongoing story is exemplified by his choice to bestow the award upon Siegal.

“This tribute represents the unbreakable bonds between Israel and Diaspora Jewry, a vital mission that Michael has dedicated his life towards. Michael is so deserving of this award and I am delighted to wish him a mazal tov on this tremendous honor.”