May 21, 2019

JVS SoCal Celebrates the Resilience of Women

Michaela Mendelsohn, Susan Feniger and Justine Siegal

Growing up in Cleveland, Justine Siegal dreamed of being a professional baseball player with the Cleveland Indians. She played baseball throughout her youth, but at 16, when she realized she probably wasn’t going to become a Major League Baseball (MLB) player, she decided to become an MLB coach. When she shared this with her then-baseball coach, Siegal said he laughed at her. “He said no man will listen to a woman on a baseball field.”

Siegal, 43, who proved that coach wrong, shared her story at the sixth annual Woman to Woman Conference at the Skirball Cultural Center earlier this month, hosted by the JVS (Jobs. Vision. Success.) Women’s Leadership Network. The half-day fundraiser, which supports JVS SoCal’s job training, counseling and placement work, was billed “Resilience: The Strength of Women.” 

Other featured Jewish speakers included Michaela Mendelsohn and Susan Feniger. Mendelsohn, a transgender woman and activist and CEO of Pollo West Corp. (as in El Pollo Loco), spoke about the challenges of her midlife transition, particularly the devastating impact it had on her children. Today, however, she said her relationship with them is “wonderful.” Feniger, the celebrated Los Angeles chef and restaurateur, recalled her early stints in professional kitchens, often as the only woman, and her restaurant failures and successes.

“If we keep waiting to be superwoman, we are never going to get anywhere. Making history is an honor but it’s much more important that we build a better future.” — Justine Siegal

Siegal, who today runs Baseball For All, a nonprofit that supports girls playing baseball, said she was discouraged by the words of her trusted coach, but not deterred The Los Angeles resident graduated from MLB scout school and got her doctorate in sports psychology. She coached college baseball and in 2015, became the first female coach in the MLB, joining the Oakland Athletics in their instructional league. Today, her Athletics uniform is on display at Cooperstown, N.Y., at the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. In 2016, Siegal was recruited as the mental-skills coach for Israel’s team in the World Baseball Classic qualifier.

“I’ve done all this stuff and it’s been really great but there is nothing special about me,” Siegal said. “All I have is these intangibles within me that we all have within us: This ability to work hard, to be passionate, to never give up, to be kind to others, to just have a vision and go with it. And as women we are often told, or we often feel, like we need to be more. If we keep waiting to be superwoman, we are never going to get anywhere. Making history is an honor but it’s much more important that we build a better future.”

Of course, sometimes the seemingly simple act of putting one foot in front of the other becomes impossible, or seemingly impossible. That’s how it was just a couple years ago for JVS client Lorrie Williams. Williams, who shared her story at the event, suffered devastating personal losses, including the death of her 19-year- old son in a car accident. Estranged from her family and having difficulty paying her rent, Williams was referred to JVS’s West Los Angeles WorkSource/America’s Job Center in Culver City. With their support, she was able to enroll in the intensive construction class she wanted. After graduating with multiple certifications, she landed a job and is part of a team building a metro station in Downtown Los Angeles. “I finally have true stability in my life,” she said.

“Every day is the best day ever,” Williams told attendees. “I was on the brink of homelessness. I am no longer estranged from my children and family. I tell people, when you want to reinvent yourself, [JVS SoCal] is the place to come.”