Meet volunteer Michele Siler, ‘the human being we all strive to be’

Michele+Friedman+Siler.+Photo+by+Bill+Motchan

Michele Friedman Siler.

Photo by Bill Motchan

PATRICIA CORRIGAN, Special To The Jewish Light

Michele Friedman Siler describes herself as “unsung” by nature, a person who “hides from cameras, ditches photo opps and doesn’t look for publicity.” The idea of being honored by the Jewish Light as an uppercase Unsung Hero just doesn’t sound right to her. 

“I’m stunned, and I’m unworthy,” said Siler, 59. “Besides, I’m not grown up enough to be an Unsung Hero, and there are so many, many other people who to me are monumental — and I haven’t done anything like they have.” 

So says a woman who works full time and then some and yet makes time for numerous volunteer projects that she feels passionate about, a list that includes LGBTQIA rights, voting rights, racial equity and diversity, immigrant rights, suicide prevention and fighting food insecurity.

The choices Siler has made and the commitments she has embraced have led others to sing Siler’s praises loud and clear. 

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“Michele is the human being we all strive to be,” said Debbie Bram, director of Jewish life and learning at Congregation Shaare Emeth, where Siler is on the board of trustees and sits on several committees. “She is caring, bright, funny, creative, thoughtful and completely unassuming. She is always ready to help, just a wonderful human.” 

Bram especially admires Siler’s creativity. 

“Michele is always thinking, and she thinks outside the box,” she said. 

For tashlich, Siler came up with the idea to give out journals with quotes on the front from Edith Eger’s book “The Choice: Embrace the Possible,” which members of Congregation Shaare Emeth had selected to read as a community. 

“Then in November, for our Gathering for Gratitude event, Michele came up with new ways for the board of trustees to be part of the program,” Bram said.

Stanford Shanker, a friend of Siler’s from the synagogue, agreed. 

“She’s unbelievable,” he said. “I’m chair of our Immigration Advocacy and Action Committee, and there has never been anything we’ve done that needed volunteers that Michele was not first in line.”

In his letter nominating Siler as an Unsung Hero, he elaborated.  

“Another way to spell ‘volunteer’ is ‘Michele Siler,’ ” Shanker wrote. 

He reported that in addition to working on his committee, Siler is on Shaare Emeth’s Mental Health Initiative Committee and is  co-chair of the Keshet Committee, which welcomes members of the LGBTQ community and works on education and advocacy issues.

“Michele also has been the liaison to the Jewish community for the Pride festivities each year in St. Louis,” Shanker said.

There’s more.  

“Michele does biweekly checkup phone calls for our more vulnerable seniors, and she is part of the team that notarizes voters’ absentee ballots at our Get Out the Vote campaign,” said Shanker, who was a Jewish Light Unsung Hero in 2017. “Also, she makes her positions known with both our state as well as national elected officials with phone calls, emails and Zoom calls to promote social justice, human rights and Jewish values. Plus, Michele was instrumental in important programming for our members during the pandemic.” 

When told what Shanker said about her in his nomination, Siler gave as good as she got. 

“Stan is a mover, a shaker, someone I have huge admiration for because he works so hard to make the world better,” she said. “He and his wife, Andy, both are amazing,” 

Siler, who lives in unincorporated west St. Louis County, is “an itinerant costume designer,” working for numerous local theater companies, and an adjunct faculty member at Webster University’s Sargent Conservatory of Theatre Arts. She is married to Patrick Siler, who works for Bayer, the life sciences company, and “moonlights as a stage manager,” Siler said. They have two grown children: Miranda, 28, and Michael, 21. 

Siler’s attraction to theater arts began early. 

“I’ve always been a visual artist, since I was a kid,” she said. “I started doing theater in middle school and first painted scenery when I got to Parkway North High School.” 

Siler attended Webster University as a scene design major, with a background in figure drawing. After working a few years, she earned a master’s in fine arts from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and turned her affinity for costume design into a career.

Her penchant for helping was honed by her father, Merle Friedman, she said. 

“He managed my grandfather’s shoe store in Wellston, and he was a huge volunteer on lots of civic service projects,” she said. “My father loved Wellston, he loved people and he loved being useful.”

In 1998, the Silers moved from their home in Chicago back to St. Louis so they could help her father take care of her mother, Anneda, who had a neuromuscular disease. 

“Later, when my dad was in a wheelchair, he loved to take part on Mitzvah Day, thrilled to be sitting at a table putting labels on packages,” she said. 

Siler also takes part every year in the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention “Out of the Darkness” walk, in memory of her brother, Lee Friedman. 

“That has become part of my inner work of teshuvah during High Holy Days,” Siler said. 

 When she is not volunteering, Siler likes to read — she visits the library a few times each week — and she enjoys the art museum and the zoo. 

“I walk a lot, and I always feel best in a library, which I visit a few times a week,” she siad, laughing. “And any night I can sit at home on the couch and watch TV is always good.”

Siler estimated that she spends about 10 hours a week on volunteer work. 

“At Shaare Emeth, I’ve been attending Wednesday Torah Study for about 20 years, and one thing that always brings me back to volunteer work is that we are commanded to do it — it’s integral to my faith to help the widow and the orphan, take care of the stranger,” she said. “That’s real for me, and volunteering is a highlight of my life.”