Michael Jeser loved family, community, Israel, and Judaism. Sadly, the President and CEO of the Jewish Federation of San Diego County succumbed to esophageal cancer on July 24, 2021. He was 45.
“Michael had a unique warmth and special charm that allowed him to connect to everyone he engaged with,” said Jack Maizel, Board Chair of the San Diego Jewish Federation. “He was a true leader, a fervent community builder, and a consummate family man. He was also a great and cherished friend who will be sorely missed.”
Michael’s tenure in San Diego began in 2018, the same year he posted a Facebook message that reflected on his initial diagnosis of cancer a year earlier at the age of 42: “One year ago tonight,” it read, “I was preparing for surgery from which I truly didn’t know if I would wake… So much has happened since. So much to be grateful for. So much to look forward to…”
Indeed there was. Returning to Southern California from Portland to take the helm at the San Diego Federation was a natural next step in a career that legacies are made of. Michael served in significant roles within the greater Federation system; in senior management fundraising and program positions with Jewish Community Centers, Jewish summer camps, and as the Executive Director of Hillel at the University of Southern California; and with Jewish World Watch in Los Angeles, also as Executive Director. He raised millions of dollars from local and global Jewish communities on behalf of countless people whose lives were made safer, healthier, more Jewish and more joyful because of his efforts.
His first year as CEO quickly revealed the leadership, fundraising, and community building skills he had amassed in 20 years as a Jewish communal professional. With a deft hand, Michael elevated Federation, leading the organization to new heights of respect as San Diego’s central address for the Jewish community. His quickly sealed a reputation as a thought partner, a collaborator, and a visionary.
“Within Michael’s first year as CEO, there were two devastating attacks on the Jewish community, one of them in our own backyard – Poway,” recalled Darren Schwartz, Federation’s Chief Planning & Strategy Officer. “Michael reached out to the ADL (Anti-Defamation League) asking how we could better work together in the future to help ensure the safety of our community. Out of those discussions, a multi-year partnership was born to bring in a Security Director with high level expertise and a commitment to develop a vision for community security.”
It was one in a long line of community partnerships and leadership initiatives that Michael envisioned and saw to fruition. Federation’s Chief Development Officer, Jodie Graber, noted several others that helped lay the groundwork for a strong Jewish future. These include the Pauline Foster Women’s Philanthropy Leadership Institute; the launch of A.C.T. (Ask. Connect. Thank.), a volunteer engagement effort; “Cornerstone,” a now annual Major Gifts Event; rededicating Federation energies toward Legacy commitments; and during the global pandemic, collaborating with the San Diego Jewish Community Foundation and the Leichtag Foundation to raise more than $3 million dollars for the COVID-19 Emergency Fund.
“Michael left us with a clear vision of how we can best realize our potential,” Maizel said. “His inspiration will carry us intentionally into the future.”
The pandemic fundraising effort occurred largely while Michael was hospitalized after his cancer returned. He faced a complicated surgery in March 2020, coinciding with the onset of COVID, and spent a month in the hospital. It was only after several days in the ICU that he learned of the successful fundraising efforts that helped so many Jewish community organizations that were facing financial distress, and ultimately, the people who keep them running.
Michael’s limitless compassion and passion, rooted in his Jewish values that were imbued in him from a young age, were driving forces in everything he did. He was devoted to area Holocaust Survivors, raising critical funds to ensure that this increasingly vulnerable population received lifesaving services that allowed them to live with dignity. Seniors, teens, young families, children, and young professionals all benefited from his unwavering commitment to create a vibrant Jewish life today and for generations to come. He was simply an unstoppable force when it came to community building.
Of all of these efforts and more, Susan Halliday, Federation’s Chief Financial Officer, said, “Michael had a such a deep well of knowledge of Federation and Jewish community more broadly that he was able to speak with confidence about Federation’s work and relevance within our community.”
Added Maizel, “Michael was, for our community, the right leader at the right time.”
Continuing the Family Business
One might say that Michael’s career path was part of the family business. Modeling his father, Paul, a veteran fundraiser and Jewish communal professional, and his mother, Faye, a Jewish music educator with JCCs and Day Schools, he was immersed in Jewish life even before he was born.
An iconic photograph in the Jeser home shows his parents and two older brothers in front of a sign that reads, “We Are One.” It was captured during an historic 1975 mission to Israel with more than 1,000 participants. A close inspection reveals a pregnant Faye. In a 2018 interview with Giving Back magazine, Michael said, “My coming in to the world is part of the Jewish story. I was coming in as part of a family – not just a nuclear family, but one that expands across the U.S. and thousands of miles across the ocean.”
Ever since, Israel was woven into the fabric of Michael’s Jewish identity. He traveled to Israel more than 30 times during his life, not including the year he lived in Israel after finishing college in 1998. A graduate of the Zelikow School of Jewish Nonprofit Management in 2004, Michael was awarded the Sherut L’Am Award in July in recognition of exceptional service to the Jewish people, an award that had also been bestowed upon his father, Paul, years earlier.
Erik Ludwig, Director of the Zelikow School, shared, “The Sherut L’Am Award is well-deserved recognition of Michael’s exemplary service to the Jewish people. The professional achievements, the friendships, and the quiet repair of a broken world are testament to the sacred intention of Michael’s leadership and his gift to future generations.”
Thousands of miles away, San Diego’s Sister City in Israel, Sha’ar HaNegev, was never far from Michael’s thoughts. Situated just kilometers away from the Gaza border, the community is automatically at risk when conflicts arise. Michael visited the region many times, providing practical and moral support, another reflection of his deep commitment to being one among the Jewish people everywhere.
“Michael’s passion and connection to Israel ignited a rebirth of our relationship with Sha’ar HaNegev” Schwartz explained. “Visiting the region and hosting Mayor Ofir Libstein in San Diego led to broad-based plans that are connecting residents in both communities and bringing us closer together.”
Under Michael’s leadership, Federation provided a variety of on-the-ground funding support, including resilience-building programs to help children suffering from PTSD. In addition, Federation created a year-long Jewish identity-building Global Partnership Program, engaging Jewish teens from San Diego, Sha’ar HaNegev, Bulgaria, and Russia; fostered and expanded teen connections between San Diego and Israel; and launched a Community Captains project, creating partnerships between local San Diegans and organizations that serve the Sha’ar HaNegev area.
“Overall, Michael dealt with a lot – Poway, his cancer, a challenging campaign, a major rise in anti-Semitism, COVID, acclimating to a new community – it would have been too much for most, but it actually seemed to give him purpose and energy,” shared Federation Marketing Director Lisa McGuigan. “Despite everything, he forged new relationships, brokered new partnerships, pushed new thinking, and really showed his face across the San Diego Jewish community in a way that I don’t think people expected. He reinvigorated Federation – a legacy that he would be proud of and one that will greatly benefit the community for years to come.”
Interim CEO Heidi Gantwerk also reflected on Michael’s legacy. “In Hannah Senesh’s poem, Yesh Cochavim (There are Stars), she writes of people like stars; they may be gone, but their light continues to shine on us all,” she said. “Michael was a star. He may not have been in San Diego for long, but he shone so brightly during his time here that he continues to light the way for all of us, as we work together to build on his vision for a thriving, connected, secure Jewish people in San Diego and around the world.”
Michael Jeser is survived by his wife, Laura, and his 4-year-old daughter, Eleanore; his parents, Faye and Paul Jeser; brothers, Marc and Dave; and countless friends and colleagues from around the world.