Morton K. Siegel, who died Oct. 25 in St. Catherine’s Nursing Home in Smithtown, L.I., was a master teacher. Teenagers in the 1950s who attended United Synagogue Youth (USY) conventions had the unique privilege of sitting in a hotel ballroom with 1,300 other participants listening to Morton inspire them with his words of Torah. He taught without “talking down” to the USY members, who sat without a whisper. Rather, Morton Siegel had the unique skill of teaching by challenging his students to stretch their minds and reach to his level.
Many of the successes of the Conservative movement are a result of his creativity, wisdom and hard work. USY became a force because he not only created it, but developed the structure, program and materials. He stubbornly refused to submit to mediocrity. We take for granted that USY Israel Pilgrimage exists, but it exists only because he created it. Since its creation, thousands of Conservative teens have experienced summers in Israel, living and growing as committed Conservative Jews. USY On Wheels has provided hundreds of teenagers with an opportunity to explore the United States and Canada because of his ingenuity.
When Morton became director of the United Synagogue’s department of education, he created and developed the Solomon Schechter Day School network which, at its peak, had over 75 schools. Although there was resistance, he usually overcame it by painting a picture of what could be achieved with a superior secular education combined with a superb Jewish education. Many of the schools were established simply because he travelled to communities to urge their creation and then nurtured their development.
Hazak, a program for senior adults, created new learning and social opportunities in a synagogue setting because Morton Siegel served as the program’s spiritual guide.
When the United Synagogue created its Perek Yomi program, the first of its kind, to motivate the learning of one chapter of Bible a day to complete reading the entire Tanach in 3 ½ years, it was Morton to whom I turned to create the educational material so that over 10,000 Jews would study Bible each day.
When I was in college, I attended an Atid program at which Morton taught and explained that the “Tree” that we read about in the second chapter of Genesis is usually referred to as the “Tree of Life.” “In actuality,” he pointed out, “it is Etz HaHayim”— The Tree of the Life. Then, Morton pointed out that although life is important, what is more important is how we live the life — what we do with the life that God has given us. If we just go through life without making a difference, we will have just lived life. But, if we can leave the world a different place because of our presence, then we will have lived the life that we were given as a gift from God.
Morton lived the life. We are blessed because of what he did with the long life he was given. He made a difference as a result of his presence in the lives of so many.
Yes, he was the force behind USY and Kadima. Yes, he was the force behind the Solomon Schechter Day School Movement. Yes, he was the spiritual leader of Hazak. And, he was leading force in the administration of the United Synagogue. So much of what the United Synagogue became, it became as a result of Morton. When he accepted my invitation to become the director of regions, he understood that he would also be responsible for the collection of United Synagogue dues. He did so willingly and skillfully. He never indicated that this seemingly mundane task was beneath his scholarly proficiency
But, more than that, Morton was a teacher and mentor. Many Jewishly committed adults live rich Jewish lives because Morton Siegel directly or indirectly inspired them. Many Jewish professionals chose careers related to imparting the messages of Jewish texts because Morton Siegel took the time to mentor them. I was blessed that he was my teacher and mentor.
May his memory be for an Eternal blessing.
Rabbi Jerome M. Epstein is former executive vice president of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.