Serving the community for 45 years

Michael Sidman

Millennials: Michael Sidman, 38

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Millennials: Michael Sidman, 38

Michael Sidman

Hebrew name: Moshe
Hometown: Swampscott
Currently living in: Los Angeles
Alma maters: Swampscott High, 2000; McGill University, 2004; The New School, 2010
Job: Director of Communications, Jewish Family Service of LA
Favorite food: Sushi
Favorite music: ‘60s and ‘80s music
Favorite movies: “Jurassic Park,” “Poltergeist,” “The Naked Gun,” and the “Airplane” series
Favorite TV shows: “Battlestar Galactica,” “Six Feet Under”
Favorite book: “Beloved” by Toni Morrison
Favorite travel destination: Southeast Asia
Somewhere you’d like to go next: Japan
Favorite North Shore spot: Marblehead Lighthouse
Favorite Jewish holiday: Passover
Favorite Jewish people not in your family: Bernie Sanders and Barbra Streisand

How would you describe your Jewish identity?

I grew up in a traditional Jewish house in Swampscott with a lot of commitment to Jewish values. My family has always been very connected to the Epstein Hillel School [which was then Cohen Hillel Academy]. Both of my siblings and I are graduates of the school, and my mom [Barbara Sidman] just retired after decades of teaching kindergarten there. That school helped foster our Jewish identities with an understanding of our Jewish culture, heritage, and religion, but it also helped us build a Jewish community around ourselves. My family was always very active at temple as well. Growing up it was at Temple Israel, which then merged into Shirat Hayam. My parents were extremely active and connected, and being part of the synagogue community was a major part of my life growing up. Now I’m admittedly less religious, but I am as committed as ever to my Jewish identity, my Jewish culture, and my Jewish self, and I’d have none of that without my upbringing, without my education at Hillel, being part of the tight-knit North Shore community, and feeling like an integral part of it.

Can you talk about your work with Jewish Family Service of LA?

Jewish Family Service of LA is the oldest charitable organization in Los Angeles – 166 years old. For me, it really represents the important and formidable history of the Jewish community in Los Angeles, and stands as the ethical response of Los Angeles’s very large Jewish community to the community at large, which is very meaningful to me as well. As director of communications, my job is to market and communicate the incredible, vital services that this organization provides to the people of Los Angeles, especially its most vulnerable people, and to help them raise the money they need to sustain these vital services and to make connections to the people who need those services. Jewish Family Service of LA does so much – we focus on hunger, domestic violence, mental health, aging, survivors of the Holocaust, people with special needs, and the list goes on.

What’s it been like working there during the pandemic?

It’s been both an incredible and overwhelming thing. People always ask me how awful it must be during COVID, but as much as that’s true, the overwhelming need we are seeing during the pandemic is symptomatic of the suffering people experience in normal times as well. People are hungry, people are lonely, people are dealing with domestic violence, and people are falling through the cracks of society. While the pandemic has caused more people to need our services because of job loss, etc., what was most important for Jewish Family Service of LA was to immediately find ways to provide the same services that keep people afloat without being able to see them in person or use our many comprehensive centers throughout the city. As soon as the shutdown began, we pivoted all of our services to adapt to the new world we live in. All clinical services went online through telehealth, our food pantries shifted towards pre-packed bags of groceries and also shifted to a massive home-delivered meal effort – we’ve delivered well over 200,000 meals since the pandemic began. We were already dealing with people being isolated, and COVID has made that so much worse. Our senior population, including almost a thousand survivors of the Holocaust, relies on our centers and activities to combat loneliness, and without that we are challenged with finding ways of keeping our frail, older relatives connected. By installing new technologies in many of their homes, we’ve been able to shift them to online classes and gatherings, which has been a Godsend. We also have a major volunteer corps that has really mobilized to make sure people have someone to connect with.  I’m very proud of what my organization has done. We’ve not only made sure that the essential services we provide remain available, we’ve been able to expand them to serve a growing number of people.

How have you observed the Jewish nonprofit world changing?

Throughout the nonprofit world, there’s a dedicated cadre of donors that keep nonprofits afloat, and those donors tend to be older. The questions are and have always been: How do we start pivoting to the younger generations, how do we build up support among younger people, how do we help them understand the importance of philanthropy? That is most important to keep the organization strong for the future. But also, for an organization like Jewish Family Service of LA, I think there is the ever-changing question of who we represent and who we serve. Years ago – and in many cases today – Jewish nonprofits were only seen as safety nets for the Jewish community. For my organization, we understand the importance of helping our own, but we also have a great understanding of how important it is for the Jewish community to reach out to non-Jewish neighbors and to be a part of the solution for the greater community in which we live. Doing that, however, challenges who we think we are. The question I always hear with many Jewish organizations who do this today is, ‘Do we keep the ‘Jewish’ in our title?’ Some Jewish organizations that have pivoted to serving the community at large have taken the Jewish out of their names so as not to alienate anyone, not to create barriers. We decided it was important to keep Jewish in our name. But that means that for me, as the communicator, that I need to find ways to clearly explain to the people of LA that all are welcome at our Jewish organization – and that is a serious challenge.

How have you tried to bring millennials into the fold?

I think the major obstacle we face in our current society is that extremely urgent and important causes to support are not in any shortage. Young people who care want to feel that they are part of the social and political solution to the problems in this country. For organizations like mine that are focused on local social services, we are constantly asking ourselves how we can compete, and how we can communicate that what we do is equally as important and urgent. People know what we do is meaningful, but it can be hard to show your relevance in the face of massive social unrest and political chaos. The message I look for, and I know it’s a little cliché, is that changing the world begins at home. Trying to fix everything can seem so overwhelming, but when you realize that you can make a real positive difference in your own community, you begin to see that you can play a role in making life better for the people around you. We really want to help the younger generation understand that helping their neighbors, people with whom they share so many aspects of their everyday lives, is one of the best ways to make meaningful change.

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