Michael wants next generation to have connection to Israel

DAVID SAFFER meets a man passionate about his new role

UJIA aspirations are in the safe hands of new chief executive Michael Wegier.

Six months into his appointment, the 47-year old is clear on his mission.

Transforming the Galil through educational investment and connecting young British Jews to Israel are of paramount importance.

Based at UJIA's London headquarters, Michael has visited projects in northern Israel to get a feel of what is occurring on the ground.

He has also taken in UK regions to get a full picture of the commitment to Israel and UJIA.

"The regions are vitally important," Michael said. "We have a responsibility to put funds back into local communities for educational programmes."

As for the impact of British Jewry nationally, Michael is succinct: "It's impossible to deny the British Jewish community punches above its weight.

"Wherever anyone looks in British society there are influential Jews.

"Whether it's business, law, politics, science or journalism, there are important Jews, many of whom identity very proudly as Jews, which is a wonderful testament to the community."

Regarding UJIA's link to the State of Israel, Michael - who made aliya in September 1990 - is well aware of Israel's social, economic and strategic challenges.

"Engaging young Jews with Israel is fundamental in strengthening their Jewish identity and commitment," Michael said.

"British Jewry, through UJIA, makes a profound impact in regenerating areas and building an educational infrastructure on which the State depends."

The former Jewish Free School pupil's formative years were spent with the Federation of Zionist Youth.

"I went right through FZY and was national chairman in 1987," he explained.

"It was a really influential time because I realised that I had an instinctive knack for teaching, particularly adult education."

Growing up within a Zionist family, moving to Israel was a natural step.

Michael's father has died, but his mother, sisters and cousins all live in Israel.

"I consider it to be a tremendous privilege to live in a time when there is a sovereign State of Israel where one can lead a sovereign Jewish life," he explained.

Michael met his Chilean-born wife Daniela on the day he made aliya.

The couple married in 1993 and have a home in Modi'in.

Initially teaching on the Machon programme for youth leaders he then worked for Melitz with responsibility for the Otzma programme for American students and later as overseas programme director.

"I see myself as a British-Israeli, I have dual citizenship and am very proud of it," he said.

"I loved the fact that Jewishness is not only lived as a personal choice, but in a public sphere as well.

"Jewish holidays, Shabbat, food in the shops, articles in the paper and music on the radio. The rhythm of the street is set at Jewish time."

Michael's career took him to Baltimore's Jewish Community Centre as director of Jewish education in 1996.

During a three-year post, he loved the American lifestyle among Baltimore's 100,000-strong Jewish community.

"Baltimore had a very strong Conservative, Reform and Orthodox presence," Michael said.

"We enjoyed that mixture and it was close to Washington and New York.

"It was also a springboard to travel all over the States and I taught coast to coast.

"It was fantastic place to spend a few years and I became an Americaphile."

A return to Israel followed on the prestigious Jerusalem Fellow professional enrichment programme at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership prior to a move to London with UJIA as director of programme and planning.

Responsible for informal Jewish education, Israel Experience programmes and educational leadership, Michael also helped develop UJIA's Galil-focused Israel strategy with the Israeli Ministry of Education, Ministry for Development of the Negev and Galil, Jewish Agency among others.

In 2007, he was appointed chief executive of the Melitz educational institute in Jerusalem.

A wide-ranging brief saw responsibility for strategy, fundraising and development of partnerships with Israeli and overseas Jewish organisations.

And during his tenure, he changed the programmes 180 degrees.

"I brought in the core programmes for students, soldiers and young professionals," he said.

An opportunity to rejoin UJIA arrived earlier this year.

"UJIA does 'holy' work," Michael said. "Connecting young Jews to Israel and helping create sustainable Jewish life in the Galil for Israelis are two fantastic unconnected areas.

"I have an intimate knowledge of almost everything UJIA does and that is obviously a great advantage."

Regarding the impact of UJIA in Israel, Michael noted: "Driving around the Upper Galil is amazing because one sees the presence of UJIA absolutely everywhere.

"By investing in schools, colleges and universities, you really feel the British-Jewish presence in the region.

"Programmes have improved the standard of learning, encouraged young people to engage with communities and supported the transition from education to employment.

"People know what UJIA is and understands the connection with Britain."

Michael also noted UJIA's policy of working with partners.

"Whether it's the Rashi Foundation, the Canadian Jewish community or Jewish Agency you feel that you're part of a collective Jewish endeavour to impact upon the people of Israel," he said.

Michael is precise about immediate objectives.

"There must be a clarity of message and purpose about our work on behalf of the people of northern Israel," he explained.

"Programmes we support in Israel or here must do what they say they will do.

"I want to see the business school fully open at the Western Galilee College and Safed Medical School graduate doctors who stay in the Galil.

"We must also support training programmes to give professional skills to young Israelis who don't have degrees."

Michael added: "In the UK, I want to see the next generation of British Jews proud, identified and committed Jews with a strong connection to Israel.

"If we can take British Jewry five steps forward in its connection and impact on Israel, it will be a job well done."

UJIA programmes depend on fundraising during a time of recession and it is a challenge that does not phase this determined individual.

"The campaign is stable, but the key challenge is to motivate and mobilise more people prepared to raise money," Michael said.

"A donor who gives 100 because that is what they can afford is extremely precious to me.

"I do not want UJIA to be thought of as a club for the very wealthy.

"We welcome the very wealthy supporting our campaign, but equally important is a child who does a sponsored bike ride and sends a donation. They are of immense value.

"UJIA's mandate as the lead charity in the British Jewish community is not only about the amount of money we have, but also about the amount of donors."

Back to Israel, and Michael wants to ensure British Jews understand the need for ongoing support in key regions.

"Many Israelis live very comfortable lives, which many British Jews who go to Israel see," he explained.

"They say to me, Israel does not need our money any more. This is a really important point to respond to.

"In Herzliya, Netanya or Ra'anana there is not such a great need for British Jewish philanthropic involvement, but that is not the case in other regions of Israel.

"Living in Britain we have a responsibility to support the collective effort to regenerate and rejuvenate the north and south of Israel. In UJIA's case this is the Galil."

Returning to the home front, he added: "All of us have specific charities that we support, which is fantastic.

"UJIA offers an opportunity to make a collective Jewish gift on behalf of Israel and the Jewish people.

"Giving with tens of thousands of people makes a large-scale strategic impact for Israeli society and the British Jewish community.

"It's a privilege to ask people to make that gift and it's a privilege to make that gift as well."

Michael together with new chairman Bill Benjamin will accompany Chief Rabbi Lord Sacks in February to the Galil on his last journey during his term in office.

"We are looking forward to honouring the Chief Rabbi's contribution to the British Jewish community," he said.

"We want to thank him for his support of UJIA's work and show him completed and current projects."

© 2012 Jewish Telegraph