Brian Siegel

by Vivian Henoch

Dreaming Big. One might say that’s always been Brian D. Siegel’s modus operandi. An attorney by training with the dual gifts of a creative and analytical mind, Brian is an entrepreneur at heart, a partner in the business of hospitality and entertainment, currently with Star Trax Events, Joe Dumars’ Fieldhouse, the Corner Grill, Bar and Game Room and the three locations of Detroit Axe. Well recognized for his leadership as a community volunteer – having won the Wetsman Award (Jewish Detroit’s most prestigious award for young leaders) and the Alterman Award (for distinguished leadership at the JCC) among others – Brian has inspired teamwork at Federation in his past service on the Board of Directors, as well as through his key leadership work in community-building initiatives including the Grosfeld Leadership Mission, Israel@60, NEXTGen Detroit. the Baron Mission Lab and JLIFE.

A longtime member of the JCC Board – and twice its lay President (2011-2013 and 2015-2016) – Brian stepped up to the professional role of Chief Executive Officer in 2016, brought in as a turnaround specialist: to lead the Center out of financial crisis, to “right-size” its real estate, and to reimagine its services – all in the face of the controversy surrounding the 2015 closing of the JCC’s Oak Park facilities.

In four and a half years, Brian’s hair has turned a wiser shade of grey. And his leadership has proven to be nothing short of transformational. “In this moment, I believe that I am the right person to help the JCC pivot to a post-pandemic and more productive future. Culturally, I’m painfully entrepreneurial, which means I’m not afraid to paint big pictures, take leaps of faith or set ambitious goals.”

“I’m not afraid to paint big pictures, take leaps of faith or set ambitious goals.”

“At the JCC, we have not shied away from difficult decisions,” Brian continued, “And closing the Health Club was one of the most difficult. But we think that the actions we have taken are necessary to secure the legacy of this historically critical agency. And, as we look at the years ahead, we see a bright future on the cusp of launching the JCC forward into a new paradigm where we fulfill our historic mission of building Jewish Community by being a collaborative engine for world-class Jewish programming.”  

On a Zoom call in early December, Brian focused on strategic steps taken and new developments underway at the JCC in 2021. Our conversation is excerpted and edited here as follows:

View from the Center: in Conversation with CEO Brian D. Siegel

On navigating change, moving big plans forward 

myJewishDetroit: On your resumé, you describe yourself as “Professional, Partner, Integrator, Leader, Visionary.” Which title do you prefer? 

Brian: I consider myself first a leader and a doer of deeds. I have a legal background, but I am entrepreneurial at my core – a trait I was first able to explore at the University of Michigan selling T-shirts at football games – when it was still legal, of course! I believe my unique ability to lead is a function of the fact that I am both a “visionary” and an “integrator,” which means that I have the ability to establish a forward-thinking path and the management wherewithal to bring the pieces together to fulfill it.  This is how I get things done.

myJewishDetroit: If you look at the stats on a document entitled The New JCC: A Multi-Generational Program-Based Engine for Building Jewish Community, there are about 1,001 things to talk about. Given the JCC’s outreach of “65 events per week, 741,000 touchpoints annually, partnering with 150 organizations,” you have an enormous ship to steer into transition. Talk about shifting the paradigm, where did you start?   

We started by taking a hard look at our Mission – “The Why” the Jewish Community Center has always existed was to build Jewish Community. “The How” it accomplished its mission needed to be re-examined and that is where the paradigm shift comes in.

Traditionally, JCCs built community by providing safe spaces for gathering and for recreation in a world that didn’t feel inviting. But what if our Community no longer needs safe space in the way it once did? What if fitness opportunities are available on every corner? What if younger people don’t want to join anything but prefer to cherry-pick the best ways to engage in Jewish life where, when, how and from whom they choose? And what if they want to shop for engagement opportunities in much the same way they make purchases on Amazon? In our view, the time was right for our Board to craft a new mission/vision statement aligned for a world of choices and the different ways in which we define Jewish Community. And that was our thinking in the JCC Mission Statement which we adopted well before the pandemic!

The JCC Mission Statement:

The JCC exists – (here’s The Why) – to build a more dynamic Jewish community – (and The How) – by collaborating to create world-class education, engagement and programming for the mind, body and soul throughout Metro Detroit.

Restated: The JCC is here to bring Jewish people together, to connect them, through compelling programming. We do that through a wide range of cultural, educational, recreational and fitness programming – from large community-wide events like our Film Festival and recent Book Fair to family programs like PJ Library, jbaby and JCC Day Camps powered by Tamarack to educational programs like JLearn, the Florence Melton School and the Pitt Child Development Center, to name just a few.

That’s our reality today. You’ll notice that there’s no mention of a brick and mortar building here.

Historically, in Jewish Detroit, we love building things. The JCC was no exception. And build we did, until our mission turned, in larger and larger part, to supporting the operations and upkeep of our infrastructure. I refer to this as “chasing the building” at the expense of pursuing our mission. And we were doing that for years, until we were forced to face the music, to confront our “real estate problem.”

We formed a committee, that Mike Berger chaired, with members of our Board and the United Jewish Foundation and determined that the JCC could no longer serve as the landlord responsible for the whole building, proposing instead that we become an anchor tenant – like the Frankel Jewish Academy. And within that framework, our responsibility shifts from 340,000 square feet under supervision to 140,000 square feet, constituting a massive change in the equation of our real estate and lifting a crushing weight off of our organization. We still have some questions to address as we vacate a portion of the building, but we feel confident that we are going to get this accomplished for the long-term benefit of the JCC and the community. 

myJewishDetroit:  As the community is well aware, the JCC recently announced the closing of the Health Club. Please share your perspective on the decision.

Heartbreaking! For the people who regularly used the Health Club facility, this was their community – their Jewish world. We have great respect and gratitude for their support over the years. But, even before the pandemic, membership in the Health Club was steadily declining along with the percentage of Jewish members. In other words, the ability of the Health Club to meaningfully advance our goal of building Jewish community was in decline. Closing was a difficult, but necessary, decision. 

I often tell the story: When I first became CEO, a good friend of mine said to me, “Brian, I just don’t understand why the Jewish community needs a Health Club.” And my first reaction was to say that we’re very proud of our Health Club, but the JCC is so much more than a Health Club. And reflecting on that conversation, I realized that we had a core brand problem. Even though the Health Club represented only 8% of our budget – from the brand perception standpoint, it represented a far greater piece of the community’s understanding of what we are.

Historically, JCCs have been known as health clubs, but if we can’t effectively tell our story in a way to overcome this misperception, we cannot be successful. The JCC provides 60% of the informal Jewish programming in Detroit and more than 50% of the community participates in at least one of these programs on an annual basis – a far greater market penetration than any other Jewish agency or organization. Our programs, along with programs we collaborate on, represent fundamental connective tissue that helps bind our community together, and yet, we are perceived by so many as a health club with a declining impact on our mission. This misperception is our burden to bear, but today we stand ready to reverse this misunderstanding.

On strategic planning: bringing the new JCC to life   

myJewishDetroit:  A visit to the website offers only a glimpse of the current state of the JCC and new developments to come. Please give us a snapshot of the strategic plan and steps in your achievement.

Four years ago, our board adopted the following seven-part strategic plan:

1: Fix the balance sheet. We started with a $6.5M deficit. Thanks to Federation, the United Jewish Foundation of Metro Detroit, the Kahn Foundation, Larry Wolfe, Matt Lester, Bill Berman (z”l) and others, plus our own work in the trenches, our balance sheet is close to being fully corrected. This is a critical accomplishment.

2: Move Federation’s Education Department to the JCC. The rationale for that was clear: Our mission was to build Jewish Community by providing and collaborating to create world-class educational programs, and, for all intents and purposes, our efforts were competing for resources and patrons with our parent organization. With that in mind and with a leap of faith taken by Federation, the JCC brought over from Federation Jeff Lasday, Judy Loebl, the entire super-talented education team along with all of its extraordinary programs – Jfamily, jbaby, PJ Library, the Melton School and the Opening the Doors Program for special needs.  (2017)

3: Develop a platform for Jewish engagement. For the JCC to maximize its impact to build Jewish community, we foresaw the need to create a platform where the entire community could present its programs – like Open Table does for restaurants, MindBody does for fitness studios and like Amazon does for just about everything! This was a crazy dream when first conceived. But, in partnership with the Federations in both Detroit and Montreal, we are creating a game-changing Jewish program platform called JLIFE – and it is in beta testing today. Stay tuned for this one!    

4: Partner with Tamarack Camps in the management of the JCC Day Camps. Done! This may seem obvious or easily accomplished, but bringing these two proud agencies together for a common goal has taken and will continue to require creative collaboration. Before his retirement as CEO in 2020, Steve Engel and I worked tirelessly on this project, and I look forward to working with my longtime friend, Lee Trepeck, as he now takes the helm.

5: Create a world-class day camp. We are in the process of bringing this audacious goal to reality – the pandemic set us back a bit here, but we are working every day to secure the funds and community support to fulfill our vision of what we are calling a “Family CAMPus” in the northwest quadrant of the Eugene and Marcia Applebaum Campus. If you have never been back in that area, the wilderness is so spectacular that it led our consultant who visits camps across the country to declare that it “was the best undeveloped day camp opportunity he had ever seen.” We have to get this transformational idea accomplished, and I won’t rest until we do!

6: Right-size the JCC building. As the Berger Report recommended, we have begun the process of transitioning the JCC’s relationship to the building from that of the landlord to that of an anchor tenant. Unburdening the JCC from the weight of the real estate will allow us to excel as an engine for building Jewish Community in Detroit. I must express my gratitude to the Federation and Foundation leadership, Mike Berger, Mark Rubenfire (our incomparable President of the Board) and our Board for working so hard to get this real estate conundrum resolved once and for all.

7: Start up an endowment campaign to secure the future of the JCC. I have often said that fundraising and particularly endowment campaigns are a function of brand and trust. As we transition from the real estate based JCC to the program based JCC to become an indispensable engine for building our uniquely connected Jewish community here in Detroit, and continue to assemble a lay and professional team that is second to none, we expect our brand and the trust we have earned in the community to grow. And, with that we look forward to significant progress in our efforts to secure the future of the JCC through endowment. 

I’m proud to say that the first donors to these latest endowment efforts were my parents, Dr. Marvin D. and Gloria (z”l) Siegel! While our future relies on recruiting new and meaningful charitable support, I must emphasize that we have been the beneficiaries of the generosity and unwavering support of Larry and Andi Wolfe, the Kahn Foundation, an anonymous donor, Florine Mark and our generous pillar campaign donors, as well as Federation and the United Jewish Foundation – all working consistently together throughout our challenges.

As JCC CEO, I am personally indebted to the professional and lay leadership of Federation and Foundation, and particularly grateful for the working relationships and lasting friendships of past Presidents Beverly Liss and Alan J. Kaufman and now, Matt Lester and Dennis Bernard, along with Federation COO, Steve Ingber; each has challenged us – not to settle for good enough – but to fulfill our mission to build our vibrant Jewish Detroit by delivering and collaborating to create great programming.

myJewishDetroit:  In your role at the JCC, what has been your greatest personal challenge? 

Learning to be patient. I was 52 when I took the job, and the very idea that it would take four to six years to turn our vision into reality seemed like a lifetime. But, when you’re talking about institutional change, nothing happens overnight. You need some level of patience and the understanding that you have to take the long view and do things incrementally for new ideas to prevail. So, even when you dream big, you have to focus on where you are going and bring people along with you. That’s been a life-changing and humbling process for me. And it’s been extremely gratifying as I look back on it. 

On JLIFE: Coming soon in a mobile app and online platform

myJewishDetroit: Briefly describe the premise: Why JLIFE?

Think of all the ways we live, work, watch, play and connect online today. Very simply, JLIFE is conceived and designed to build greater access to and engagement in all things Jewish in our community. The goal is for more Jewish people to be doing more Jewish things more of the time. Think of JLIFE as an online engagement platform for Jewish events, family activities, education, arts, culture and volunteer opportunities – a one-stop digital gathering place where you can curate your Jewish experiences, register for them and share them on social media. 

We believe – and our data show – that people want to connect Jewishly now more than ever. But “The How and Where” is changing to what I call the Amazon world view.  We’re all consumers – just as happy coming to the JCC for a jBaby program, as heading over to Temple Beth El to hear a speaker or attending a Chanukah lighting with Chabad. Our connections are not necessarily about membership to a single institution. The cultural, social and geographic shifts to online communities have opened the floodgates to opportunities to engage in activity, and it’s up to the collective Jewish community to keep up by providing on online platform, a one-stop shop to make all of our collective engagement programming as accessible and easy to navigate as possible. 

From the end users’ standpoint, JLIFE strips the barriers, takes the friction away — with easy navigation, selection, registration, payment, calendar notice and social media postings.

For participating organizations, JLIFE is an EventBright-level platform – an organizational snap to promote and post events, process payments, make refunds, keep subscriber records and provide donation letters – altogether saving them ridiculous amounts of money, paper, postage and manpower previously spent in largely ineffective marketing, printing and mailing.

And, finally, from the convener level – being Federation, the driver of the platform – the benefit of JLIFE is community building and understanding through data the participant statistics that paint the community picture in living demographic color.

JLIFE was a dream, but we placed it #3 on our strategic plan. Personally, I am proud of our partnership with Federation in the development of the platform – “co-brainstorming” the concept with Scott Kaufman (former Federation CEO) and Ted Cohen, Chief Marketing Officer – along with good friend and local genius (co-founder of Moosejaw and Crowdrise) Robert Wolfe and the get-it-done and former Detroiter, Zach Weisman. Since we first started the project four years ago, we have been working with a team of brilliant professionals, proven technology entrepreneurs and volunteer leaders in partnership with the Federation of Montreal. Together, we plan to roll out JLIFE in 2021. Woohoo!

Bottom line: We are here to build Jewish community, through engagement programming, where and when people want to consume it. If we are smart enough, nimble enough, creative enough, tech savvy and data driven enough – then this could be the golden age for our community and the JCC’s critical role in it.

On long-standing partnerships: Building the strength of the community 

myJewishDetroit: Over the past decade, Jewish Detroit has seen a shift to a new generation of leaders and agency professionals – notably many of your closest friends and longest standing partners in business. Please describe some of those relationships that have proven to be key assets in Jewish Detroit’s community development.

First, there’s my sister, Nancy Heinrich, CEO of Jewish Senior Life. She followed her passion for lay community work and jumped into that pivotal professional role in 2015 after 30 years as a successful real estate lawyer. Nancy and I have followed similar paths as lawyers, then volunteers, then lay leaders at Federation and on Jewish agency boards, and finally as Jewish professionals. It’s a joy to work alongside her in our CEO capacities. I have great admiration for her and consider her a mentor.

Throughout my career, I have had the good fortune of lifelong friends and business partners who have been like family and who are also deeply engaged in Jewish community work: There’s Geoff Kretchmer, my partner at Star Trax and Detroit Axe and the ultimate mensch who is now the President of the Board at Tamarack Camps; Scott Kaufman, one of my closest friends and business partner with Joe Dumars at Joe Dumars’ Fieldhouse (before he went on to trailblazing as Federation’s CEO); Lee Trepeck, a camper of mine at Camp Sea-Gull, one of my best friends and now a respected colleague; and Mark Rubenfire who served as President of the JCC Board for two terms including through the incredible challenges of the pandemic. I am forever grateful and indebted to these friends and extraordinary high-level community leaders.

Giving credit where it’s due, I want to mention my partners at the JCC, with particular thanks to Jeff Lasday our COO, Larry Poupard our CFO and Judy Loebel and Heidi Budaj our Assistant Executives. Each one of them is indispensable in our efforts to re-establish the JCC as a critical builder of Jewish community in Detroit. 

I mention just a handful of colleagues, but if you compile a list of people on the executive committee at Federation, half of them are people I grew up with, went on a mission with or co-chaired Federation committees with. We all bring to the table our professional skills, our experience and individual views and our passion for Jewish Detroit. And I think that’s one of the remarkable strengths in the leadership of our community.

On what’s next

myJewishDetroit: Imagine it’s Year Six in the Strategic Plan. You are well underway in meeting the goals set for the new JCC. What would your next goal be?

Even though there were only seven original parts to our strategic plan, everything must evolve. “Item Eight” – now on the list and inspired by Judy Loebl will be a concept we call Off-Center – a satellite JCC operation to be developed as an eastside hub located in the Berkley / Oak Park area and hopeful for a second location in downtown Detroit. Please note that we are not looking to build more real estate! The concept is to develop hyper efficient touchpoints of moderate scope and size – approximately 3,000 to 8,000 square feet of floorspace – where the community can easily gather for activities and events.  

myJewishDetroit: Anything on the wish list?

I often say that I need to generate ten outrageous ideas to have one that is not so crazy that we can actually pull it off. One such idea that I can’t let go of is that the Federation and the JCC return to the City of Detroit in partnership with the pioneers in our Community already doing the heavy lifting there to build a hub of social/non-profit entrepreneurship for the benefit of the entire region. Something akin to the 92nd Street Y in New York City or the Soho House in Chicago – an idea factory or incubator with a Jewish n’shama (spirit). Now, I know that sounds like a pipe dream, but don’t all of the most important ideas start that way?

myJewishDetroit: On a personal note, what do you do to unwind and relax?

I love my work and wake up every day with the opportunity to get something great done! I have very special friends, great siblings a blended family with an amazing girlfriend – and two beautiful kids of my own: Natalie, 23, who is in social work school in Denver, and Griffin, a sophomore at Elon University in Greensboro, NC. What more can anyone ask for?