What she’s reading: A Rick Steves guidebook to Croatia, where she’ll be traveling this summer.
Words she lives by, in particular when it comes to religion, according to her grandmother: “If you’re smart, you’ll take a little bit from here and a little bit from there, and you’ll find that we’re actually much more similar than we thought.”
School’s out at Seattle Jewish Community School. But guess where Elizabeth Siegel is? When JTNews caught up with her, she was still in the building, cleaning out six years’ worth of 4th grade lessons, old papers, and maybe a dog treat or two.
Like her colleagues, she’ll soon be heading out on summer vacation — this year to Croatia and Slovenia, of all places. But unlike her colleagues, Siegel won’t be back in the fall.
“It’s just time for a new challenge and a change,” she says.
But you can tell that a conversation about the 4th and 5th grade classes she has taught for the past six years makes her wistful about what she’s decided to leave behind.
“I have such a passion for working with kids, being able to show them how much power that each individual has in being able to create change within their community or their world,” Siegel says.
Shoshana Bilavsky, head of school at SJCS, says that Siegel “understands the meaning of Jewish education and the importance of Jewish education for the Jewish people.”
Though she taught general studies subjects such as English and mathematics, her passion lies in civics and government. Highlights over the years included trips to Olympia, where her students met with legislators, and, this year, a trip to Swedish Hospital after a unit on the human body so they could see how it works up close.
“I love experiential learning,” she says. “I think that’s the best way for the kids.”
She also modified the SJCS philosophy of derech eretz, which teaches the idea of working together to create a better world, from the concept of tzedakah to justice. Rather than just taking care of the less fortunate, she says, “it’s ‘What is the right thing to do?’”
At the same time she was teaching, Siegel also became very active in local politics. Her connections allowed her to take her students on what she calls “the private tour” when they visited Olympia.
She limited the politics in the classroom to the functions of government and discussion of important issues in a context that would allow her students to effect change, but Siegel says the “parents knew and the community knew where I would hang my hat.”
Where she hangs her hat, aside from advocating against animal cruelty — she even brought her dog Scout to class on occasion — includes serving as vice chair of the 36th district Democrats and as associate director for a fellowship held by the Institute for a Democratic Future that introduces young leaders to our state’s political issues.
“The fellows that come to the program expect a high-quality program because of the work she has done,” says Jason Bennett, the Institute for a Democratic Future’s executive director. “What the program is today, she really helped crystallize that.”
But her political involvement manifests itself in the Jewish community as well. She sits on the board of the Washington State Democratic Jewish Caucus, a recently revived group that successfully fought down what Siegel called “an anti-Israel resolution basically saying we don’t support Israel” at last month’s convention.
Siegel also co-founded the now-defunct Menschworks social action program through the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle and is currently working her way through AIPAC’s leadership development program.
Teaching at SJCS “brought her closer to Judaism in a different way than she [understood],” Bilavsky said, “back to her heritage.”
So what does Siegel plan to do next? It could be teaching, it could be politics, it could be something completely different. Whatever it is, it’s written in her DNA that she will somehow serve her community.