January 2, 2003
Israel Trip Blossoms Into Philanthropy
For a self-described spoiled American -- nails unerringly polished, paprika curls without a misdirected loop, ensembles color coordinated -- Blossom Siegel's first visit to Israel was a transformative experience. It also was a boon to Orange County's Jewish community by awakening a tireless activist and philanthropist.
"The first trip to Israel changed my life," said Siegel, who is the honoree at a scholarship fundraising dinner Jan. 25 for Irvine's Tarbut V'Torah Community Day School at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in Irvine.
When Siegel saw the Israelis financial and emotional needs on her 1985 visit, she came to the conclusion that vigorous American Jewish communities ensured Israel's lifeline.
Siegel was also seeking a new direction in life. Sobered by her Israel experience, she returned to Newport Beach to immerse herself in the local Jewish Federation, an umbrella fundraising vehicle that generated $1.9 million last year for the county's Jewish agencies and schools.
"For me, Federation was synonymous with community. It makes the most impact," said Siegel, who served the organization for three years as president, ending in 1995. She remains one of its most generous financial supporters. Last year, she endowed a fund exceeding $500,000 to benefit the Federation's campaign in perpetuity, according to the annual report.
"She doesn't say no to anyone," said Irving Gelman, Tarbut's founder. "She helps knowingly and unknowingly," he said, adding that Siegel prefers anonymous philanthropy, because she is discomfited by the personal scrutiny that accompanies public gifts.
"I'm trying to convince her to let us name something at the school for her," Gelman said of one of the school's primary benefactors. Even so, Siegel continues public financial support motivated by a desire to set an example for others, he said.
Siegel is proud that during her presidency, local Jewish agencies were for the first time geographically united with the remodeling of the current Costa Mesa campus opened in 1996. The former auto museum was a gift of the Feuerstein and Fainberg families. "That established the nucleus of a real Jewish community," she said.
With her passion and commitment to strengthen the county's Jewish bonds, Siegel also proved no slouch at face-to-face solicitations, a principal job of presidents who lead nonprofit groups. Even before her first trip to Israel, Judaism already strongly influenced Siegel's life.
Growing up in Brooklyn, N.Y., synagogue was a mainstay activity for her family. She graduated from a New York art institute and worked in advertising as a commercial artist.
After marrying and moving to Germany's Black Forest in 1967, she arranged Hebrew lessons in her home for six children, including her own, by hiring a traveling rabbi.
In helping the oldest child become a bar mitzvah, Siegel said she set off a sensation among local Jewry. From outlying villages, more than 100 people trekked to Frieburg to witness the event, the first since before the war. "It was an awesome experience," Siegel recalled.
On relocating to Newport Beach in 1971, Siegel turned to leadership in her local Conservative synagogue, Tustin's Congregation B'nai Israel.
Despite the violence in Israel, the region has not lost its allure for Siegel, who has, since 1985, returned 21 times, most recently last month as part of the local Federation's 16-person mission. Even so, she would not consider relocating. Three adult children and grandchildren compel her to stay in the United States.
But so does her feeling of fulfillment over her own impact. "The work I'm doing here is very important," she said.