“It’s been a momentous five years,” says Michael Siegal, outgoing chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish Agency.
Speaking from his Cleveland home via Zoom, the silver-haired Siegel looked tanned and relaxed as he reviewed the challenges that confronted him during his five-year tenure as lay leader of the organization, as well as his accomplishments.
Considering the global pandemic that began in March 2020 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine in February – both of which are still ongoing – calling the past five years “momentous” is no exaggeration. Siegal said that these significant events demonstrate the need for an organization that acts on behalf of the world Jewish community.
“I think that the war and the pandemic show that in times of crisis, Jews around the world can mobilize to sustain and assist Jews in peril,” he says. “While some people think that may be something that isn’t necessary, the sustainability of being ever-present in the global Jewish world allows us to react quickly. We sit around a table with Jews from Switzerland and Brazil and talk about issues in support of Israel, in support of the global Jewish community. I don’t know whether this exists anyplace else.”
The global nature of The Jewish Agency, he said, which is on the ground in Jewish communities throughout the world, makes it unique. “The reality is that the global Jewish community has very few places where we gather and really talk about real issues that concern not just the United States and Israel,” says Siegal. “This is where Jews come together from these various organizations to talk about the structural needs of a global Jewish community. It’s still a unique value.”
One of the distinguishing factors of the Agency that sets it apart from other Jewish organizations, says Siegel, is its unique relationship with Israel, in its support and promotion of aliyah and absorption. “Our relationship with the government allows us to do things around the world that the government can’t do itself. That part of the mission is sustaining us not only since 1948, when the State was founded, but will sustain us in the future.”
Siegal says that the aliyah from around the world is an event of biblical proportions. “I think we are living in biblical times. We’re living in a time where there’s a Jewish nation and ingathering of the exiles.”
But beyond aliyah, the Agency is playing an active role in promoting the importance of Israel to today’s Jewish college youth.
“The battleground in the United States is on the college campuses,” says Siegal. “We have shluchim (emissaries) on the college campuses. There really is a battleground going on for hearts and minds. If you don’t have Israelis bringing the real Israel, you’re not going to win the battle because there’s so much money and so much of a singular issue about anti-Zionism and anti-Jewish elements. We can’t do that without Israelis assisting us, so we bring the Israelis to the rest of the world that nobody else does.”
The past five years have also been significant ones for the Agency in terms of its overall organization and effectiveness.
“I came in under Natan Sharansky (Jewish Agency chairman from 2009-2018), and was responsible for encouraging Isaac Herzog to come to the Jewish Agency as its chairman,” says Siegal. “It was an astonishing three years of transformation with, as we call it, the Gang of Four: Isaac Herzog, the chairman; myself; Amira Ahronoviz, whom we promoted within the organization to be CEO; and Beth Kieffer Leonard, the budget chair. The four of us worked hand-in-hand to really create this transformation, making the Jewish Agency a relevant and sustainable organization going forward.”
In recent years, Siegal has held some of the most significant lay leadership positions in the Jewish world, including board chairman of Israel Bonds, the Cleveland Jewish Federation and the Jewish Federations of North America, and the Jewish Agency. What are his hopes for the future?
“I’m a passionate individual about wanting my grandchildren to be Jewish. We’re very privileged to be alive where there is a Jewish nation. We all know that Jewish sovereignty isn’t a given, nor has it been historically sustainable. As we look at the challenges of the society, and the fragmentation of our society in general, I think that my passion will continue in ways I don’t know yet, but this is a passion for me because I care about the Jewish people. I care about my legacy and my grandchildren. And I want them to live in a world where there’s a Jewish nation.”