January 20, 2019

Jewish Author and Communal Professional Richard Siegel Dies At 70

Screenshot from Facebook.

Richard Siegel, the director emeritus of Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute for Religion (HUC-JIR)’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, died on July 13 at the age of 70 after dealing with cancer over the past couple of years.

Siegel authored several books, including The Jewish Catalog, a do-it-yourself book for young Jews to partake in various Jewish traditions, as well as The Jewish Almanac and The Writer in the Jewish Community: An Israel-North America Dialogue. He and his wife, Rabbi Laura Geller of Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills, had written a book called Good at Getting Older: A Practical Catalog Grounded in Jewish Wisdom that is on its way to being published.

Siegel also established various financial entities, including the Jewish Endowment for the Arts and Humanities, to provide funding to Jewish cultural initiatives.

During his tenure directing the Zelikow School, Siegel was able to broaden the school’s focus from a communal service program to a program of professional leadership in the nonprofit realm.

Additionally, Siegel served as the executive director of the National Foundation for Jewish Culture for 16 years and was the State of University New York Stony Brook’s first Hillel director.

HUC-JIR praised Siegel for being “a transformative force in the Jewish world.”

“Richard Siegel always exhibited the highest qualities of character, vision, and menschlichkeit,” HUC-JIR Interim President Rabbi David Ellenson said in a statement. “His contributions to American Jewish life and culture as Hillel Director, as author of The Jewish Catalog, as head of the National Foundation of Jewish Culture, and as Director of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management were legendary. The College-Institute was blessed by his leadership. He will be sorely missed.”

Siegel leaves behind Geller and their four children, Andy, Elana, Josh and Ruth.

It takes a village to build community

Sylvia Price and Helene Korn laugh and enjoy food at a Village new member potluck event. Photo courtesy of ChaiVillageLA.

Temple Emanuel Rabbi Emerita Laura Geller and her husband, Richard Siegel, put up a sukkah in their backyard every autumn during Sukkot. Siegel usually erects the structure and Geller decorates it with colorful paper chains. For one week, they typically eat all their meals in it.

Last year, with Siegel scheduled for a minor surgery in the middle of the holiday, he knew he could build it but perhaps not take it down. They built it anyway, and shortly after the holiday, six men and women over age 55 who walk in a nearby park once a week, stopped by Geller’s house and took it down.

“Those are the kinds of moments — even just needing to change a light bulb — that make people realize they have to move into facilities,” said Geller. “Good neighbors mean you don’t have to do that.”

Just their luck? No, it was their “village.”

The “Village Movement” began 15 years ago in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston when concerned community members came together to figure out how best to age in their own homes. More than 200 similar villages have since popped up around the country, providing volunteer-driven services and programming.

Geller, Siegel and the six weekly walkers all belong to Chai Village LA, with Geller and Siegel serving on its14-person steering committee. The village organized last July and now has nearly 200 members older than 55 in and around West Los Angeles. The venture is a partnership between Reform synagogues Temple Emanuel of Beverly Hills and Temple Isaiah and is the nation’s first synagogue-based virtual village.

Geller believes Chai Village LA addresses a growing need in the city’s aging Jewish community that hasn’t existed in previous generations.

“People are living much longer,” she said. “There’s this new stage in life between your career, raising a family and then the end of life. People don’t just retire and get old. People are trying to figure out what this stage of life is about.” 

Ongoing communication exists among villages around the country, through the Village to Village Network, a website that promotes dialogue and best practices. There’s also an annual conference.

Villages are normally composed of people living within set boundaries who pay nominal membership fees and often hire professional staff to help train volunteers. Chai Village LA’s paid full-time director, Devorah Servi, described the village as a “chavurah,” a Hebrew word that often refers to a group of like-minded Jews who assemble to share communal experiences.

“Synagogues are more top down. We’re more bottom up. It’s very volunteer-driven,” Servi said. 

Servi has a small paid staff, but members run programs — with the exception of those that are health-related. More than 100 programs initiated and executed by volunteers — who also are members — have included gatherings focused on genealogy, photography, backyard gardening and film discussion. Servi estimates that her active member base is 80 percent aged 60s and 70s, the rest 80 and older.

“We’re tapping into the amazing talents of people who are 65, 75, 85 — even 95,” she said. “We’re not just taking care of people; we’re engaging people in community life. I can’t say people live longer this way, but they definitely live happier.”

Rabbi Zoe Klein of Temple Isaiah cited a deeper meaning for members.

“We talk often of frailty and weakness when we talk about age, but this is about power,” she said. “It is about bringing together people’s skills and passions to make a difference in each other’s lives, and once strong enough together, to use that collective power to generate real change.”

“They are not worried about losing their place in line for the next promotion, or their children’s daily dinner plans,” she added. “Rather, they have the time, means and vision to be the activists of tomorrow on today’s critical issues.”

Chai Village LA members pay $100 in annual fees, or $150 per two-adult household. They must be members of either Temple Emanuel or Temple Isaiah and are required to volunteer for four hours per month in administrative roles, chairing committees or providing services like meal delivery.

The idea for Chai Village LA was borne out of a sermon on aging that Geller delivered six years ago when she was still senior rabbi at Temple Emanuel. In it, she quoted the Beatles song “When I’m Sixty-Four,” which includes the lyric, “Will you still need me / Will you still feed me /  When I’m sixty-four.”

In the ensuing months, Geller embarked on what she billed “a listening campaign” with more than 250 congregants older than 60. Over potluck dinners in private homes, discussion groups grappled with spirituality, end of life and other health care concerns. But chief among topics, she said, was craving a sense of community from years past.

“For some, it was as simple as wanting someone to go to the movies with,” Geller said.

When a research group of congregants discovered the “Village Movement,” a clear goal emerged.

Siegel, who retired in 2015 after serving as the head of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management, wrote a grant proposal to establish Chai Village LA as a virtual village connected to the national network, based on Jewish values, the first of its kind anywhere, according to Geller.

“We were surprised that none of the other villages were faith-based,” she said. “If you think about it, it’s a perfect fit for a synagogue, church or mosque.”

Siegel’s 2015 proposal won a grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, making Chai Village LA a reality. The grant will fund development and operations for three years. Beyond that, Chai Village LA will have to find partners and sponsors willing to donate, something Geller says she’s not worried about.

According to Geller and Siegel, synagogues and their fee-for-service model — like paying fees for religious services and Sunday school — is becoming dated, leading to a dwindling engagement after bar and bat mitzvahs. That has given rise to fervor among synagogues to keep young people engaged through all kinds of programming.

Siegel said the collaboration of two synagogues viewed as “competitors” is what made the proposal for Chai Village LA so cutting edge.

“This is really a cross communication type of initiative, a partnership initially between Temple Emanuel and Temple Isaiah and maybe eventually others,” he said. “It’s a new model of community organizing within the Jewish community not bound by the confines of institutional walls.”

Geller and Servi said they feel that this sort of collaboration could foretell the synagogue of the future, one involving more home-based, volunteer-run programming. They also said they would like to see programming become multigenerational. Chai Village LA is even exploring technology innovations to match volunteers and services to appeal to young people.

“The larger Jewish community has nobly focused much creativity, energy and resources on the emerging adult population, post-b’nai mitzvah through chuppah. Less has been invested in adults, and less so in the period between mid-life and frail old age,” said Klein, adding, “the period between middle age and frail old age is now significantly longer. We are the pioneers of what society will look like as people live longer. We are the pioneers of what the Jewish community will look like.”

Bridging the gap: A new paradigm for change

I had occasion recently to revisit the Masters Thesis I wrote in 1972 for my degree in Contemporary Jewish Studies from Brandeis University. I needed to reference it for an article I’m writing… and I was curious to see whether I would have been able to pass the Zelikow School’s thesis requirement. (I believe I would have, but since I’m also the grader, I may not be a reliable judge.)

The title of my thesis was “The Jewish Whole Earth Catalogue: Theory and Development.” It was the precursor to The Jewish Catalog which was published the following year and became a kind of manifesto of and guide to the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s.

I am proud to say, I was a charter member of the Jewish counterculture of the 1960s and 70s… as were a number of people in this sanctuary. Now it is true that the late-60s Jewish counterculture committed a number of sins for which we are still confessing:

  • We were arrogant…
  • We were naive…
  • We were narcissistic…
  • We were impatient…


But we did have a legitimate critique of American Jewish life, and we were offering some new ideas for its reinvigoration. To be clear, we weren’t just pointing out the Jewish community’s faults and admonishing it to change its priorities. As activists, we were working to make the change happen, to “be the change we wanted to see,” to use a contemporary aphorism. And this was not a case of “Hadesh yomanu k’kedem” (“Renew our days as of old.”), but rather of “Ev’en ma’asu ha-bonim hoyetah le’rosh pina.” (“The stones which the last generation discarded, have become the cornerstone of the new building.”) We wanted to revolutionize the American Jewish community from top to bottom.

As an aside, I recently read a quote by Garry Trudeau where he said “…one of the nicer things about youthful cluelessness… is that it's so frequently confused with courage.” But back to our revolutionary agenda.

Break up the synagogues. Bring the rabbis down from their pulpits. Create new rituals that speak to the issues of the day, like Arthur Waskow’s Freedom Seder or celebrations of women’s experience, like simchat bat ceremonies. Create new ritual objects which reflect the aesthetic of hiddur mitzvah, like multi-colored tallesim or hand-calligraphed, egalitarian ketubbot. And above all, empower the individual Jew to take the tradition into his or her own hands. The 60s Jewish counterculture was the original Jewish DIY movement… whether building your own sukkah, baking your own hallah, or moving to Israel to build a new kibbutz…

As captured in the somewhat frothy introduction to The Jewish Catalog (whose subtitle, btw, was “A Do-it-Yourself Kit”), the objective was to “move away from prefabricated, spoon-fed, nearsighted Judaism into the stream of possibilities for personal responsibility and physical participation. This entails,” it continued, “returning the control of the Jewish environment to the hands of the individual – through accessible knowledge of the what, where, who and how of contemporary Judaism.”

Although we were certainly accused of it, this was not just Baby Boomer narcissism and self-entitlement; this was Baby Boomer optimism and self-empowerment. We saw how all around us the larger American society was undergoing radical change, almost overnight… civil rights, feminism, the anti-Vietnam movement, the sexual revolution, identity politics, ethnic pride… And we asked, why not the Jewish community, as well?

Surprisingly, both to ourselves and to our elders, we actually had a modicum of success; we had an impact… and, I would argue, a positive impact… on the character and direction of American Jewish life. Over the past 50 years, the community has changed in some significant ways as a result of the attitudes, ideas and initiatives fomented by this motley group of 20- and 30-somethings. Synagogues changed: they created havurot, not quite the commune-like structure of Havurat Shalom in Boston, but a real effort to down-size and make the synagogue more intimate. Communal priorities changed: after the student take-over of the General Assembly of the Council of Jewish Federations in 1969, Jewish education and identity catapulted to the top of the communal agenda. Prayer changed: people started praying like they meant it… with kavannah/intentionality often accompanied by Shlomo Carlbach’s niggunim and later with Debbie Friedman’s prayer songs. And attitudes changed: feminist theology and spirituality, together with pressure for gender equality, transformed the face of American Judaism.

Now, this is all very well and good, and we can all pat ourselves on the back, but why is this relevant to today’s ceremonies? Let me suggest three reasons:

  1. First and most important… Because the work is not over. Major changes are needed in some critical areas of American Jewish life in order to stay relevant and compelling.
  2. Second, I bring this up to remind ourselves that, as my wife likes to say, “The way things are is not the way they have to be.” While change is inevitable; creative and adaptive change is a human invention… We can make it happen.
  3. And third, I raise this now… davka because this is not the 60s. The Jewish community in the first decades of the 21st century has very different structural, organizational, generational and psychological challenges than it had in the middle of the last century. And we need very different thinking to address these challenges.


The work is not over… change is possible…and we need a new generation of leaders who are attuned to the underlying ethos of the times…

  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can help us keep up with the changes coursing through modern society… whether technological or sociological.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can create anew or re-engineer the Jewish organizational infrastructure which is no longer working for the next generations emerging onto the scene.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can make Jewish life a more competitive option to the myriad attractions and distractions of contemporary secular culture.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can renegotiate our emotional attachment to Israel, in light of ever changing present-day realities.
  • The Jewish community needs leaders who can actualize the global Jewish shtetl and give contemporary meaning to “Kol Yisroel arevim ve’b’ze.” (All Israel is responsible for each other.)


The work is not over… and the Jewish community needs you, our graduates! Our Millennial graduates!

It’s interesting that in the Millennial generation, the old socio-political dichotomy of the 60s and 70s… with the stogy Establishment, on the one side, and the Baby Boomer counterculture, on the other… doesn’t exist anymore. In the 60s, these were adversaries with very different world-views and values, and the Baby Boomers had to mount a full-scale assault… a revolution, in the terminology of the day… in order to get the Establishment to even recognize them, let alone, relinquish some of its power to them. Sometimes the assault was literal, like the March on Washington in 1963, the public burning of draft cards, the protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago in 1968, Woodstock… and in the Jewish world, the student take-over of the General Assembly, the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry, and the creation of alternatives to mainstream institutions… havurot instead of synagogues, the Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education instead of the Bureaus of Jewish Education, Breira as an alternative voice on post-1967 Israel, Response magazine as an alternative voice to Commentary, the Jewish Student Press Service as an alternative voice to what passed for Jewish journalism… There wasn’t a Generation Gap; there was generational warfare.

But that dichotomy doesn’t exist today… not in the broader society and not in the Jewish community. The Boomers and the Millennials, far from being adversaries, actually have a lot in common. Millennial kids generally like their Boomer parents… they still listen to their music, they still have dinner and go to the movies with them… some even still live at home with them. If there’s a generation gap, it’s not in world-view, it’s in technology. If there’s a critique, it’s not about the need for change, it’s about the pace of change.

So too in the Jewish world. The counterculture has been replaced by social entrepreneurs… and the establishment has been replaced by legacy organizations. But these are not adversaries.

They are not adversaries… however, they do tend to occupy different spaces and operate in different orbits. The legacy organizations have their national conferences (the JFNA General Assembly, the URJ Biennial, the JCPA Plenum…)… and the start-ups have theirs (Slingshot Day, the ROI Summit, the newCAJE conference…). The legacy organizations have their news outlets (JTA, the Forward, the Jewish Journal…); the start-ups have theirs (Heeb Magazine, Tablet Magazine, Jewcy…). The legacy organizations have their preferred social media, primarily Facebook; the start-ups have theirs, primarily Twitter.

So while they are not antithetical to one another, they unfortunately have very little to do with each other. I say that it is unfortunate, because in spite of their differences, they are actually allies and need each other. They are both contributing, in their own ways, to what Jumpstart has termed the “Jewish Innovation Ecosystem.” Both legacy organizations and new social enterprises are looking for innovative ways to keep the Jewish brand alive… looking for ways to apply Jewish values, wisdom and world-view to the challenges facing today’s Jewish community.

They are not adversaries; they are allies. And they will only succeed if they work together to build alliances of innovation and change based on their common objective… an American Jewish community that can help Jews… whether affiliated or unaffiliated, whether in-married or inter-married, whether for a two-state solution or against a two-state solution… an American Jewish community that can help Jews spiritually, intellectually and culturally navigate and negotiate the challenges of the contemporary world, both internally and externally.

This is where you come in. You, our graduating students. You can be the bridge between these two reluctant allies. You, our graduating students, are in the unique position of understanding the motivations of both, of having your feet in both, and, therefore, of seeing where linkages and partnerships can be forged. Whether you are in the rabbinate, education or nonprofit management… Whether you end up working for “legacy organizations” – like federations, JCCs, camps, Hillels, advocacy groups, defense agencies, synagogues and schools – or for start-ups, incubators or social enterprises, your unique role is to ask the meta-questions and bring together the strongest and most creative elements in both spheres to address them: What is the best way to provide Jewish education in an age of Google Search and MOOCs? How do we take the cacophony of special interest organizations and turn them into a chorus of renewal? In an age of virtual community and global community, are there new ways to think about Jewish community?

Whether you end up working for legacy organizations or for start-ups, your most valuable skill will be to leverage your relationships to create synergies… to help established organizations adopt social enterprises and social entrepreneurs as their R&D departments… and to help promising start-ups affiliate with more established organizations in order to gain the sustainability, strategic management and infrastructure that they can’t achieve by themselves.

We are beginning to see some examples of this synergy… and its impact:

  • Locally, the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles has, for a number of years already, been providing significant sized “Cutting Edge Grants”… some to startups and some to established organizations… but all of them designed to push innovation in the LA Jewish community.
  • On a national level, JTA, which describes itself as The Global Jewish News Source, but whose initials actually stand for Jewish Telegraphic Agency (a decidedly last century creation, if there ever was one), has expanded its media empire by incorporating MyJewishLearning.com, Kveller, and Jewniverse… all Millenial creations.
  • And on an international level, the Joint Distribution Committee is spawning an intrapreneurial venture entitled Entwine which is attracting young Jewish professionals to its global and service learning agenda.


These are just beginnings, but they are showing the power of bringing legacy organizations together with newer social enterprises to create a truly all-embracing Jewish Innovation Ecosystem. Relationships can be developed. Linkages can made. Entrepreneurs can become intra-preneurs. Creative and adaptive change can happen. And you… our graduates… our nonprofit professionals, educators and rabbis… can make it happen. Whether you find yourselves in legacy organizations or in young start-ups, you must be the connectors… because you have the skills, education and perspective to forge the partnerships that the American Jewish community needs to face the difficult, but exhilarating challenges ahead.

So, don’t worry about your “youthful cluelessness.” Have “courage,” go forth and make the connections. Because we’re depending on you. Kan y’hi ratzon.