Looking at Renee Siegel’s volunteering resume, one might assume she was a Holocaust survivor. All her activities, be it with the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage or Congregation Shaarey Tikvah’s Face to Face program, both in Beachwood, center around the Holocaust.
Whether it’s her background as a teacher or her family connection to the Holocaust, Siegel feels the pull to give back to her community by way of Holocaust education.
CJN: Tell me about your volunteer endeavors.
Siegel: The highlight for my volunteering was when I volunteered in Israel for three weeks in 2010 on an army base. I went with an organization called SAR-EL, meaning service for Israel.
I also do a lot of Holocaust-related initiatives. I’ve been with the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage since the day they opened up. I do mostly Holocaust tours, like the Stop the Hate tour.
We also have this interactive biography at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage and it’s run by the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation. I was one of the first people trained for that and I’ve done over 20 tours on it. It’s very rewarding and interesting. I’m also involved with Congregation Shaarey Tikvah’s Face to Face program.
CJN: Why did you decide to focus on the Holocaust?
Siegel: My grandfather came here in the very early 1900s. We were all raised here knowing almost nothing about the Holocaust. He didn’t really speak about it.
I have vague memories of learning about it in school but it never really hit me. But, this passion is motivated by the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage.
I am newly retired and I wanted something meaningful to pass my time. And now I’m so deep into it.
CJN: Why is education an important volunteering aspect for you?
Siegel: I’m always going to be a teacher at heart. When I was going to college, you were either a teacher, a nurse or a secretary. I chose to be a teacher, but this relationship to Holocaust education, I know I chose the right profession. For years, I had such an impact on younger children and now I can impart knowledge onto older children. I get joy out of teaching about such a horrible subject and there isn’t a better way to word it.
CJN: Why did you decide to volunteer with the IDF?
Siegel: A friend talked me into it and it was my third trip to Israel. They go, “We’re going to volunteer” and I go, “Not me.” But, they talked me into it and I did it.
We came and went to the army base. We didn’t choose where we were going with the organization. It was a huge army base and we were packing all these medical kits. It was interesting in itself for the sheer method of it.
I also got to raise an Israeli flag and it was one of the most emotional things that stand out in my life. Unimportant me – standing there and raising the flag. It was amazing. It all felt so important.
CJN: How has volunteering changed your view of retirement?
Siegel: I could never be retired and sit home. My friends can all tell you that I don’t sit well. A day at home is nice and then two days at home, I’m restless. I don’t want to do that.
This is the third year I was listed in the top five in volunteer hours at the Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage. I’m proud of that and I can’t see myself doing anything else.
Other than volunteering, Siegel finds joy in traveling and spending time with her children and six grandchildren.
“No one lives in Cleveland, so I always tell parents not to raise their children independent because then they’ll move away,” she said, jokingly. “But, I also have some really close friends and I’m really fortunate.”
A three-time cancer survivor in remission for seven and a half years, Siegel said nothing stops her.
“I always think I lead this very boring life, but then I get talking about it and I think my life wasn’t so boring and I can’t wait for the rest,” she added.