Michael Wegier – Bagel Bite
Play • 30 min

It’s very possible you have no idea who Michael Wegier is. He is a lifelong Jewish charity professional and has just finished his tenure as Chief Executive of UJIA. A true example of strong and stable leadership. If you haven’t heard of UJIA, it’s the largest Jewish Israel charity in the UK with a multi million pound turnover. We talk crisis management, Birthright, how to be a good fundraiser and lots of other really interesting stuff. Hope you enjoy it.


Hayden Cohen: Hello and welcome to the Bagel Bite. I'm Hayden Cohen and for this Bite I present an interview with the outgoing chief exec of UJIA Michael Wegier. UJIA or the United Jewish Israel appeal is a multi-million pound charity that is THE educational charity for the UK Jewish community. We chat about birthright, crisis mode, Israeli projects that work with both Jews and Arabs together, how to be a great fundraiser, how to be a great chief exec, Zionism, challenges to Jewish charities and the plethora of Jewish charities that UJIA support. As ever if you're enjoying the bagel, please do share it around, sign up to the mailing list, strike up a conversation on Twitter, Facebook, with each other or even on your smart speaker of choice. If every listener tells two of their friends then there'll be two more chevra listening and that's why I'm known for my great Maths skills. Anyway your support is not only greatly appreciated, but goes a long way to ensuring the longevity of the show. Also if you have any suggested features or have something you want to share, email oy@bagelpodcast.com. Right pressing play…. now.
HC: So I'm joined by Michael Wegier who is the Chief Exec of UJIA. Although to be fair, when this goes out you may not be at that point because you're coming to the-
Michael Wegier: Well that sounds terrible, but yes, you are correct. I will be ending my tenure at the end of February.
HC: But my way was more misleading.
MW: It's true. It's true.
HC: Maybe and I apologise for the number of listeners that do know what UJIA does, but I do find that it's one of these organisations that the majority of the community in the UK has heard of, but they might not necessarily know what it does. So how about we start with that?
MW: Sure. So UJIA is Britain's largest Israel charity and Israel is the glue that binds us together and we engage with Israel into different but overlapping ways. Firstly, we support a wide range of Educational and employment related and community regeneration related projects in Israel, focused mostly in the Galilee in the North, and secondly we are responsible for engaging thousands of British Jews with Israel as a key component of their Jewish identity and those we do both in the UK and also by sending young people to Israel and all sorts of Educational programs, short term and long-term.
HC: There is the weird intersection, isn't there, in terms of UJIA and all the various youth movements who have their own ideology and Mission statements and this type of thing and then does UJIA fit in with that or do those organisations have to fit in with UJIA?
MW: By and large we really welcome the fact that the youth movements represent a very wide range of religious and political views. We ourselves are a non political charity. We don't take a position, but we support movements ranging from Habonim more to the left, to Bnei Akiva more to the centre right to much more Orthodox movements like Ezra. So we are not trying to make those movements like each other or distorted dilute their ideologies, but we welcome the fact that there is a broad tent in this community and we want to underpin that by both financial support and wide range of consultative services.
HC: You may not want to answer this when, but I feels like that tent is getting broader, but I know the last summer, summer 2018 was a bit fraught, particularly birthright. So do you want to provide a little bit of context for those listeners that I don't know what happened?
MW: Sure. Well Birthright itself was not. very problematic for us in the UK. It might it might be in the future. I can't predict, but it was a very big story in the United States. What happened in the UK, was some young people who are involved in an organisation called 'Na'amod', which is moulded on an American organisation called 'If not now' came to Heathrow Airport when a group was going on birthright and they sort of handed out some leaflets and information to people going on birthright saying they should question what they're told on Birthright, particularly with regard to Israel treatment of Palestinians and UJIA's view was it's a free country, they are entitled their opinions and we had no problem with it. What happened in the United States on a couple of occasions now, is people have gone on Birthright and left the bus in protest of what they were being told. As of January 1 2019 that's not happened to a UK bus and that's situation, so that itself is not very problematic. I'm entirely comfortable with people who protest quietly and responsibly there's no issue.
HC: As I don't like to presume anything, Birthright is a free trip for young people and that age changes every so often.
MW: That's correct. It does change often. Right now in the UK, most people who go on Birthright are aged between 19 and 26. There have been a couple of pilot groups of people who are a bit older than that, but most people who go are aged 19-26. Of course someone is paying. It's free to the user and the money is being paid through a combination of the generosity of the UJIA's donors and, the Israeli government and some large international Jewish philanthropies. It's a three-way funding relationship. But the UJIA is the UK funding partner of Birthright.
HC: I am a past participant of Birthright. I've done that myself. It's interesting actually, because when I went on Birthright I thought it was handled pretty carefully in terms of showing both sides of that debate but that could be my perception. I might come from a very different background and experience from other people that went on it/ I thought it was handled quite delicately.
MW: I think most tour guides do handle it pretty well and I've observed and run Birthright programs from Israel in a previous life and I have been observing Birthright since it first began and in my experience the vast majority of Birthright tour guides understand their educational role very well and are really careful to present a multiplicity of views to young people. However this is a project that comes from Israel. It has an Israeli perspective. It's not trying to be anything else.
HC: Why is that an issue? It's something that I find fascinating. As somebody who is Jewish, is it not natural that your bias is going to be towards other people of that same community and you just acknowledge that bias.
MW: Well you and I might agree on that Hayden, but I think there are significant numbers of young Jews who have a more universalist world view and whilst they're interested in exploring their Jewish background, they also want to understand much more about Palestinian narratives and from Birthright's perspective it's not the easiest issue in the world to resolve. Right now I know that Birthright is giving a lot of serious thought to how to engage on this issue. They understand. They've heard that message coming particularly from North America, but also from us in the UK and elsewhere in the world that we want to be sure that Birthright is doing a really good job at letting young people know that there are multiple views in Israel and not all them come from an Israeli Jewish Zionism perspective. It's something which we are in constant discussions about. The leadership of Birthright is aware of this issue, but what it doesn't want, is to allow its programs to be hijacked by people doing provocative acts which are there simply to go online virally and aren't really interested in engaging at the time with what's going on that and that's how much Birthright, I think quite reasonably, has reacted against.
HC: I would say as well if you are listening and you are of those opinions, you are welcome to come on 'The Bagel Podcast.' I'd love to chat to you. This is a place for all those differences of opinion. I'm just curious of what happens during crisis mode. So you get a phone call I'm presuming in whatever time it is, saying this thing has happened. Again you might not be able to talk about it, I understand. But what's the process for it? What's your process for crisis management.
MW: so the real crisis that we had to deal with in my tenure was the Gaza conflict in 2014 where we had some people who were in Israel already and some people who due to go to Israel and in consultation with the authorities in Israel, something called the 'Chedim Matzav - The Situation Room', which is run through the Israeli Ministry of Education, but coordinates all the programs that come to Israel, we realised very quickly that we could keep people in Israel safely, which was out top priority, but we'd have to make some significant adjustments to programs to make sure no-one was in range of rockets and we also had to run a quite significant communications strategy with the youth movements and with parents in the wider community. So we created a situation room in our offices in the UJIA which was running all day and all night. Obviously at night we weren't in the building, but through WhatsApp and telephone it was running and we would have 4 or 5 conference calls every day with people from Israel and here, just making sure that all of the programs were being run safely and properly and that the communications were being handled effectively and I think the community was reassured that we knew what we were doing. Very few children chose not to go on tour and everyone went and everyone came back safely and I think it was a model of how you run situation in in that way, which was not simple. A lot of my staff during me barely slept for about 6 weeks, but our priority was to give the young people a really good educational and fun experience and we managed to do that.
HC: Is it fair to say the overarching lesson that maybe other organisation can learn from, is that of communication? That if you are communicating with parents then that dissipates a lot of that stress beyond the logistics.
MW: Yes. Communication is absolutely key and I think that all of the community organisations have understood that better in the last few years.
HC: Very diplomatically put.
MW: I think it's true. I'm not trying to be diplomatic. I think that the level of communication that comes out of the major Jewish communal organisations is pretty good today. I think that's quite a healthy state that's going on there.
HC: What do you think are the major challenges for Jewish charities going forward in the next decade?
MW: The single biggest challenge will be an ageing major donor base. The average age of major donors in our community is not getting younger. That's not to say that young people are not generous. They are generous, but their giving patterns are different. All the charities are going to have to adjust to different ways of raising funds and distributing funds so that's the number 1. Related to that, of course, is the sheer number of charities in the community and Jonathan Goldstein, the chair of the JLC spoke about this both at Limmud in other forums recently and he's quite correct. There are too many times in the community and that means that both the Professional and the Volunteer leadership are going to need to address that issue, I would say sooner rather than later. I think where possible to have collaboration and to have mergers is very good and some charities will no doubt close and their work will be taken up by other ones. It's not a question whether this is good or bad. It's just going to happen because the number of charities is not sustainable in the long run of a community of our size.
HC: Fair enough. Could we maybe get a bit onto your story, if that's ok? So you were born in in London, correct?
MW: Yes. I was born in London was born in Palmers Green and and raised in Palmer's Green and I was very involved in youth movement in FZY.
HC:I won't hold it against you.
MW: Thank you. I went to Israel with FZY and a gap year in FZY. I'd spent 5 months in Israel earlier because I went to JFS on their Iyvat Washington program. So Israel very much entered my blood and I pretty much knew by the time I got back from my gap year that I was going to make aliyah and which indeed I did. I went to University, studied and then I made aliyah and I spent most of the last 25 years in Israel, but with three periods abroad including this one.
HC: So where else have you been?
MW: The States. We spent three wonderful years in the States in Baltimore, where I was Director of Jewish Education for the Jewish community Centres in Baltimore.
HC: That must have been quite a different role to heading up UJIA.
MW: Completely different. It was a role that was really teaching I really taught most of the time: Adult education both in the JCC and in the wider Baltimore Jewish Community. I was also a guest teacher all over the States, so I got to see America from coast to coast. Baltimore was interesting. It is 100,000 Jews of which about 25000 are ultra-orthodox. A very, very, big ultra-orthodox Yeshiva there called Neir Yisrael, a very fine establishment and a very significant, generally Orthodox community and of course very prominent reform and conservative synagogues as well. It was a nice mishmash and in that way it was quite like London in that the blend of orthodox and non- orthodox Jews.
HC: It seems to be very different in America. I was in Florida a few years ago and there was a young professionals event that rotated every month between reform, orthodox and conservative and I can't imagine that happening here.
MW: Yes. That because the Orthodox are not a majority in the United States and because there is no such thing as a Chief Rabbi or a Beth Din with a certain worldview there are less issues about reform, orthodox, conservative rabbis talking to each other and appearing on platforms.
HC: Fraternizing!
MW: I wouldn't want to romanticize it. There are, of course, tensions in the Jewish community, but you do find, it's not uncommon, for strictly Orthodox and progressive movements to have greater degrees of collaboration that sometimes you'll see here.
HC: Do you think we'll ever get to a point here, where that collaboration will happen?
MW: It's already happening here in frameworks that are not around religion. Projects such as Mitzvah day for example or Shabbat UK I think have done pretty well in bringing different denominations to take part together.
HC: I also had the perception that Shabbat UK is quite United Synagogue.
MW: Well certainly the Masorti movement has agreed to take part over the last couple of years. I don't know whether the Reform and Liberal movements have, so I can't say there, but it is a good example where, you see quite clearly people from different branches of Judaism coming together and collaborating. I think as long as theology isn't the issue people are quite comfortable about working together. I think sometimes theology can get in the way.
HC: So I kind of want to go back to the past to UJIA because I just find it quite- What skills do you need to have and what have you found has helped you in your role as chief exec.
MW: Up until my previous job in Israel, I had not really done any fundraising and of course UJIA is a fundraising organisation. But I had a lot of experience in management and leadership through education as I'd run very big projects and big organisations and in my last role in Israel at an educational charity I discovered that I could fundraise and I wasn't terrified by it and in fact I was quite inspired by former teacher of mine from Jerusalem Professor Seymour Fox, who said all fundraising in the Jewish community is really Jewish education and I saw took that mantra to heart, so when the position at UJIA became available, I decided to apply for it and was fortunate enough to to be offered the role and I really embraced the fundraising piece that came with it, and one of the great pleasures I've had at UJIA has been meeting with our donor base at every level. Not only major donors, but right throughout the community, and talking to people about Israel and Judaism and the community and they're role in it and their concerns and those conversations are really powerful conversations and it's what makes our community tick. I really found that I took to fundraising at every level. It's something that I found really empowering and a very satisfying part of my professional life.
HC: So can you give us some tips and tricks. I've heard that a good fundraiser should be someone that when they walk into the room, everyone walks away from them.
MW: Well that wouldn't be a good fundraiser. If people walk away from you -
HC: Because they know you're going to hit them out for money.
MW: But I don't want that to be how my relationship without donors is defined. I want my donors and certainly I say this to the team at UJIA. You want people who you're going to eventually canvas to have a relationship with you and they should enjoy talking to you and enjoy being with you and feel they are getting something from you as well. So I think if I saw people running away from any of our fundraising team that would give me concern. Fundraising is not transactional it's relational and that's absolutely key. So the relationship between the canvasser whether that's a professional or a volunteer and people in the community is critical. I also say to the team, people wants to give are they wouldn't take a meeting from you if they didn't want to give. Now they might not give to you. They may in the end decide that giving to UJIA is not what they want and they'd rather give somewhere else, but that's ok. If they are giving. If they are generous. If they are philanthropic that's what's so important because that's what makes the community tick. I would say the key is to have a good relationship with people. To be clear what you're asking for. To be able to either answer the questions or admit you don't know and be able to go back to them with answers. To be transparent. To be honest and eventually to be direct. You can't be vague about fundraising. You have to be clear that you're making an ask, what you want that ask to be, and those I think are some of the key tips of the trade. It's a privilege to be part of that work and anyone listening who was thinking of a career in fundraising, I would be only encouraging,
HC: Out of interest, do you find it's easier to fundraise for things rather than, generally UJIA? I can remember, I was at trustee in my students union. They always said that you get the alumni to pay for a bench before they'd pay for a staff member.
MW: So UJIA and I think several of the other charities are all going through this transition now. Where once upon a time, donors to the British Jewish community were happy to give to a pot, because they understood that the organisation they were given to was doing great work and they trusted organisation to deliver that work on their behalf. That is still the case for many many people, but we're also seeing a different group emerge in the community who do want therefore their donation to be targeted, something specific. It might be a building, it might be a program and so all charities generally, not just in the Jewish Community but everywhere in the world of philanthropy, need to consider and take into consideration, both types of donor. Those who will continue to give to the pot because they just broadly understand and accept the cause and those who want something more specific. So that's part of the skill set of the fundraiser. It's understanding quite quickly what the donor wants and being responsive to her or his particular fundraising strategy and style.
HC: You were saying a bit before that demographics are changing. So how is that going to look when all the wealthy people die off, to be blunt. How will that fundraising approach change?
MW: All the wealthy people will not die off. If you don't mind me saying, I'm not sure that's how the world operates. The next generation of major donors will give differently to their parents and grandparents that's for sure true and charities are going to need to be flexible and dynamic and be able to work with this new reality. So in UJIA one of the things that we have done recently, is we've setup a social impact innovation fund. SI3 we call it. Focused on Israel and the idea there is people will give gifts which we will offer to various companies in Israel as loans, repayable back loans, which are doing both social good and giving back a financial return and connecting British Jews to Israel. So we give those loans. They will then come back to UJIA and then in discussion with the donor we will reallocate it to a new cause. So it's a green gift. The gift that keeps on giving. So one very small example is there a very few Ethiopian Israelis who run their own small businesses. So we've created a fund with our partners in Israel giving Ethiopians the opportunity to create their own businesses. One young woman I met this year has created her own salon for doing make-up for weddings, for brides, and also providing with wedding dresses which they can borrow. So she's creating her business in that way and we've help to expand it and develop it. It's a very very tangible example of how this new type of giving will emerge and develop.
HC: I do find that UJIA does tend to - The projects I've heard over the years, have a certain imagination to them. I've been to, is it, the university, is it.. you'll definitely correct me, Beit El? No. There's the university that's the half Arab, half Israeli University.
MW: So the Western Galilee College in Acco is a college which we've done both a capital build: we help build the new business school there and also we have a lot of Educational enrichment programmes there and a bursary program for students and it is indeed a college that is split roughly evenly between Jews and Arabs and it's a really wonderful program in Acco.
HC: So why would you fund that?
MW: So we took the view, really a decade plus ago, that in order to upgrade the quality of life in the Galilee and where there was less opportunity and less development than what is in the middle of the country: Tel Aviv, Netanya, Herzliya. The colleges as they're called, were a very important vehicle of change. They were able to give people professional qualifications rather than liberal arts degrees, that would enable them to -
HC: I've got a liberal arts degree.
MW: So have I and I love my liberal arts degree and there's no problem with liberal arts degrees but for most people living in the Acco area, a liberal arts degree wasn't what was they were looking for and wouldn't necessarily have helped them and so the the Western Galilee college and the Tel Chai College and there other examples, focus much more both on scientific programs and professional programs, which were perceived by both Israeli government and by local authorities, to give a better chance of getting people into meaningful employment and I think that has been successful. These colleges of booming in Israel today. I do realise I may have given the impression that I'm hostile to liberal arts degrees, but I'm absolutely not, but I think liberal arts degrees suit a certain type of person. Really for most people, a liberal arts degree is probably not something that's going to be, in the context of Northern Israel -
HC: It doesn't get you a direct job. There's that side of projects in Israel projects in Israel that I would say as a kind of outsider, has a large level of pragmatism to it. In terms of making life better for everybody and then that will ultimately help everything. On the flip side the - I just want to talk a little bit about the British projects. So UJIA is a Zionist organisation. I think that's fair to say.
MW: So the word Zionist, does not appear in our charitable documents, because Zionism itself is not charitable. It's interesting under British charity law, so whilst it actually true that the majority of people who work for UJIA, our trustees, our staff, are of course Zionist. An organisation itself can't be Zionist.
HC: Can we explore that a little bit? Why not?
MW: Under British charity law -
HC: Does it specifically say Zionism?
MW: We of course consult with charity lawyers all the time about this sort of thing. I'm not a lawyer so you may want to bring in a lawyer to talk more about it, but from our point of view, what were able to do as a charity, is advance the welfare of people in Israel. That supporting the people of Israel which is absolute fine and engaging in education about Israel which is also fine so. Technically those are the things that are able to do. Yes of course, I personally am a Zionist and indeed I would say pretty much all of my colleagues would define themselves in that way as would our trustees, but I just want to be quite clear in case I was to be misunderstood. I'm very aware of the mind field that that is.
HC: There's no minefield! I've had plenty of interesting debates on that so maybe let's not go down that road way. So there's the projects that are based in Israel that legalistically are not Zionistic an in the UK there's projects that aren't. They're not against Israel, but they're more about supporting local Jewish Communities.
MW: But one of the shifts we've done in UJIA, and this may bore people and I don't want to bore but the work that we do in the UK is all around Israel so we really have stopped funding projects now that are not around Israel. So in the origins of UJIA, we were putting quite a lot of money into communal institutions that were not focused on Israel. That's now stopped and we realised we had to be much tighter and much more focused in our work. Everything we do now has Israel at its core.
HC: So why was that decision taken?
MW: Because there was a sense that the message was confusing. Both to ourselves and the community. What does UJIA stand for. I like to say UJIA stands for Israel. We do Israel here and we do Israel there and that that way I think we just don't have any confusion anymore.
HC: Well you add another level of confusion when you used to have Palestine in the name of you charity.
MW: Indeed. We were called the Joint Palestine Appeal for many many years. In fact I believe it wasn't until 1973.
HC: No?!
MW: Yes. And we can thank Sir Trevor Chinn who was a part of the group that made that change, but we became JIA (The Joint Israel Appeal) only in 1973. Which I agree is pretty extraordinary.
HC: If any is listening and their doing pub quiz that should definitely go on there. So just before we finish, what's the next big plan? Can you divulge?
MW: really can't divulge right now. There are some big plans. <aybe we'll have to do a recap of this interview in a few weeks time when things are a bit clearer, but certainly I'll be staying in the area of Israel and Jewish education and fundraising; Those sort of areas.
HC: I'll just wait until you're the presidential consultant you're staying very quiet. Michael Wegier, thank you very very much for your time and I wish you all the very best with whatever it is, you end up doing. Thank you.
MW: Thank you very much indeed.
HC: Again many thanks to Michael. This was a few weeks ago so I asked him what's next and the international Man of Mystery replied with: I'm going to be starting work as a consultant in fundraising and strategy for major international NGO's both in and out of the Jewish community. Answers on a postcard. That's it for this Bagel Bite. The next main episode will be a Passover special, but I may release one more bite before then. See you next time Baglers.

The post Michael Wegier – Bagel Bite appeared first on The Bagel Podcast.

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