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Remembering Richard Siegel, A Pioneering Jewish Leader

At the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), we educate Jewish leaders as klei kodesh; that is, skilled organizational visionaries in the service of God and the Jewish people. None embodied that mission with more unadorned authenticity than Richard Siegel, of blessed memory.

In 2007, Richard became interim director of the School of Jewish Communal Service, which had long figured prominently on the Los Angeles campus. Richard grasped that a new generation of students and evolving Jewish organizations demanded a new direction, and thus a new name for the School.

With characteristic and oft-cited modesty, Richard engineered the process from the sidelines, putting his students at its creative helm and modeling leaderly education. Meanwhile, he moved implacably and ever-gently forward, cajoling us, his colleagues, with his simple and irrefutable argument: The future beckons. We greeted it with the newly named School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

Underneath his equanimity lay a keen eye for detail and prowess in argumentation, all the more disarming for that famous understatement. Leaning into the headwinds of the 2008-09 crisis, Richard reframed lean times and urgent needs, and he successfully protected the School in a period of shrinking resources and competing interests. Ultimately, he defied the challenges and, in 2015, he retired on the laurels of a stunning achievement: He had stewarded the outstanding gift that would, once again, rename the SJNM — this time as the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management.

After his retirement from HUC-JIR, he and his beloved wife, Rabbi Laura Geller, co-authored “Getting Good and Getting Older: A Jewish Catalog for a New Age,” and conceptualized and founded Chai Village, a faith-based village designed to facilitate aging in place with the mutual support of its members.

Throughout his journey, Richard not only saw but also harnessed change in the service of the Jewish people. Steven Windmueller got to the heart of it in his recent appreciation: “Richard held to the view that Jewish communal service must be understood as a calling and as a sacred responsibility.”

Richard was a klei kodesh throughout. Before he came to us, he had already served and inspired countless people and organizations over a lifetime of impassioned creativity. While he was with us at HUC-JIR, he multiplied those numbers yet again, this time through the service, as the Kaddish D’Rabbanan says, “of his students, and his students’ students,” among whom we, his colleagues, proudly number.

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