It’s four in the afternoon. The kids are home from school.“Lisa’s making strawberry smoothies, want one?” Tal offers. Thus begins a chat at the dining room table at the Siegmann home. We mention the table because it is a work of art, a labor of love that Tal designed and crafted — an intrinsic part of the life he’s built for his family and community here in Jewish Detroit.
Admiring the beautiful cabinetry in the home, the beds Tal has built for each of his children, the art pieces on the walls and the rocking horse in his workshop, we ask, “Are you a master carpenter?” No, he answers in all modesty, “That’s a title only other carpenters can give you.”
A family man in his prime, hitting his stride. Solid. Smart. Soft-spoken and serious, but not without gentle humor. These are but first impressions. And yes, in a heartbeat, you would trust your children to his care. Hundreds of parents and thousands of children in the community know Tal Siegmann as the Director of Center Day Camps at the JCC in West Bloomfield Township.
Married 16 years to Lisa, Federation’s Associate Director of JFamily and Informal Education at the Alliance for Jewish Education, Tal is a metro Detroiter now by numerous twists and turns.
Born in Cleveland, Ohio, raised in Haifa, Israel, a former lieutenant in the Israel Defense Forces, trained as a medic to instruct others, Tal holds a DVM degree from the College of Veterinary Medicine at The Ohio State University in Columbus and a Bachelor of Arts degree in Biology from Tel Aviv University. He’s worked as a counselor for children with special needs in Ohio and as a guest teacher at the Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Indiana. A professional woodworker, he also served as artist-in-residence at Tamarack Camps and as artist-in-the-schools for the Jewish Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education.
Lisa, also born in Cleveland, earned her B.A. in Elementary Education and her Masters of Social Work Administration in Jewish Communal Service, both at The Ohio State University. She was working in Columbus after completing graduate school when she met Tal in his second year of veterinary school. They were newlyweds when they followed the job opportunity for Lisa at the Jewish Federation and moved to Detroit in 1999. As new parents, they worked together at the Grand Resort Family Camp in Cheboygan, where Lisa served as Director and Tal was the Assistant Director in 2003 and 2004.
Today, as Jewish communal service professionals and parents of a growing family (still without a dog), life is good and busy for Tal and Lisa. Proud to be Hillel Day School parents, they have three children in attendance there, Adi, 13 (about to celebrate his B’nai Mitzvah with his sister at Adat Shalom); Maya, 11 (a fabulous baker-in-training) and Amit, 8 (an aspiring basketball player).
On family background and education
Q: Israeli, Ohioan, Michiganian. Where’s home?
T: Home, of course, is where my family is. I was born in Cleveland, a U.S. citizen, but my family’s home always has been Israel. I grew up in Kiryat Ata, a suburb of Haifa.
How did your family come to Cleveland?
T: My dad is a professor—a materials engineer, now retired. He was working on his post doctorate degree at Case Western Reserve in Cleveland, where we lived until I was about three. We also returned to Cleveland for my father’s sabbatical year when I was in the 8th grade. I graduated from high school in Haifa, then trained for four years in the Israeli army, where I became an officer and instructor in the army’s medical school, training medics. That experience drew me to medicine, so I continued my education at Tel Aviv University where I graduated with a B.A. in Biology. At that point, my connections to Cleveland made The Ohio State University in Columbus an attractive choice for my postgrad work (being a resident really helps with tuition). I applied and was accepted, and that’s how I got to vet school in the States.
On career choices
And from vet school to woodworking. How did you make that leap?
I would say that woodworking is in my DNA. My grandpa was an inventor and creative in his own right. He immigrated to Israel from Poland in the early 1930s—educated as an electrical engineer. At the time there was really nothing in Israel for skilled engineers, but when they told him they needed a plumber, he decided to become a plumber. He always laughed about it—that he was the most educated plumber in Israel. Growing up, I remember we always loved to play in his shop with all his tools and his things. My dad, too, was always repairing or building things for us, so I was drawn to it.
I finished veterinary school, but I knew that life in animal medicine was not going to be for me. Fifteen years ago, when we moved to Detroit, we decided the time was right and, with Lisa’s support, I could follow my dream, really to do what I love. So I gave fine woodwork design a shot.
What brought the two of you to Detroit?
Lisa: I had been working in Jewish family education (JFE) for a number of years. In fact, Jeff Lasday (Director, Federation’s Alliance for Jewish Education) was my boss in Columbus, where I first started in JFE. It was Harlene Appelman, the Alliance Director at the time, who reached out and gave us our start here in Detroit.
And then from woodworking to JCC Camp Director? Another leap?
T: Not really. Outdoors always has been my big thing. And our kids had been to camp at the JCC. So when the opportunity came about, it seemed like a natural choice to jump in — to take my passion for building things and what I love about the outdoors and bring it to other children.
L: Even when Tal was in vet school, the summers when he was free, he worked at the camp in Columbus where we first met. And then, we had the great opportunity to work together, directing The Grand Resort. Tal is well known—even today—for making his beautiful challah boards for all the families at that camp. A lot of what Tal does is enduring Judaica.
On moving to Detroit
As your “adopted” city, does Detroit feel like home?
T: Israel is where I grew up. Detroit has become my very close second home because this is where we are creating family now. But for me—there’s just one home, that’s Israel.
L: I sometimes think of the irony working in family education that my own family is not here. It’s true we have our own family here, but still it’s hard, especially during the holidays. We love it here. We have adopted family in our work communities, our JCC and Federation community. We have our Hillel community. Our Adat Shalom community — really close friends. We’ve been really lucky.
With your careers so connected, how has your family life been enriched by your professional life, and visa versa?
T: From my perspective, joining the Jewish community has been a big leap. In Israel, we don’t make the distinctions between Jewish and community and country — it’s all connected. Being Jewish is in your bones. Serving in the IDF connects you to Israel on a whole other level. It is very different for the Jews in the Diaspora. In terms of our religious customs and practice? Lisa is very informed. I enjoy her spirit—that Judaic energy that she brings in to our life. Whenever I struggle, I talk to her. So we have our bedtime talk, that’s when we talk shop—figure things out. That’s certainly helpful. Every now and then we have an opportunity to collaborate on projects and that’s a lot of fun.
How has being a parent influenced your work as a professional educator?
T: Our lives are busy. We’re fortunate that we can juggle schedules and make it work. Lisa jokes at the start of camp season starting in May – see you in September.
L: That work life balance is still tough for me. We don’t have the luxury of having family around to pick up the slack or a cleaning company to come in once a week. My children are the cleaning company. Time to rake the leaves? It’s a family education program. Time to shovel snow? It’s family education. We do it all together.
In what ways is leading a day camp like parenting?
T: A lot of the decisions we make at camp relate back to who we are as parents. So when staff comes to me with questions or with a problem, I immediately go back and think how would I handle this if it were my own child? How would my wife handle it? How did my parents handle this when I was a kid? And you factor in all of your experience and you come up with your answer. Being a parent is a huge advantage. It gives you a lot of insight.
The second piece of my answer is the beauty of the camp experience itself. We have a standard and practice of what we know is the best and safest environment for our children. And we stick with our principle: No child left inside. So when we give children that opportunity to be outdoors, they flourish.
What advice do you give parents sending kids to camp for the first time?
Parents can trust that we work very hard to prepare for the summer. They can email or call us with questions any time, no problem. We know it’s hard for parents not to hover sometimes, but we also know that kids in a camp environment can act differently than when they are home. They try new things. They’re more self-sufficient. They form their own community. And we are there to guide them and help them along. Our best advice: pack a healthy lunch, don’t forget the sunscreen and we’ll take good care of your kids.
How can parents tell when a child is ready for camp?
Any child is ready. I think it’s more a question of whether the parent is ready. At four or five years old, children generally are accustomed to the confines of an indoor classroom. When the kids come to our camp for the first time and we take them outside, they just shine.
On next steps
Tal, a natural outgrowth of your work at Center Day Camps at the JCC is the new Hebrew Immersion Camp. Tell us about its startup this summer.
Hebrew Immersion Camp is an exciting new concept that’s been a year in the planning. Last year, the Jewish Community Center of Metropolitan Detroit was invited with three other JCCs to observe a pilot program at Camp Ramah in New York, driven by the Steinhart Foundation. We want children to be connected to Israel and to their Jewish identity, and one of the best ways we have to do that is through the Hebrew language, starting as early as kindergarten. We came to observe the program in action in its seventh week, and were amazed to see how organically and how quickly children learned Hebrew just by being placed in a Hebrew-speaking camp setting where the object was simply to play and have fun.
This summer we’re piloting the program here in Detroit—along with only one other JCC in North America—in Toronto. We are in the process of recruiting counselors from Israel. Additionally, we’ve made one major improvement to the program: We’re adding a weekly activity throughout the school year to reinforce and build upon the language skills acquired over the summer.
In the process of starting the Hebrew Immersion Camp, I have been fortunate to be one of 10 Camp Directors selected to join the training of 1,500 new schlichim (counselors) coming to the U.S. this summer.
As you are recruiting young people to come to Detroit, what do you tell people?
T: I tell them it’s a fun city. I tell them that what the auto industry is doing is just unbelievable. I say that there’s an amazing Jewish community, that we are very fortunate to be a part of. I tell them that Detroit is a city with a long way to go, but Detroiters overall are survivors and you can see that in the way the city is rebounding. I think that Israelis who have grown up in what we call the “Startup Nation,” always fighting for existence, can relate to that message.
L: I grew up in Cleveland . . . was never part of the city. Though we’re “too old” to be considered NEXTGen, what’s so exciting for us to see is what’s going on with our next generation — our kids are getting involved in the city. Maya is starting to do volunteer work in the city through PeerCorps, Maya and Adi have both done JServe. They’re getting their feet wet in the city and want to be a part of it and really own it. . . and to me, they’re our future.
Restaurant: Red Coat Tavern in West Bloomfield
Place to meet for coffee: At home with friends
Downtown spot: The Riverwalk
Place to take kids, visitors: Kensington Park
Vacation spot: Silver Lake for camping in Michigan; Golan Heights in Israel
Camp activity: Team building
Israeli food: Falafel and schwarma
Clive Cussler, a favorite author, Robert Ludlum series