The original mitzvah hero
Danny Siegel offers a no frills, no red tape way to help those in need: do it yourself.
By Alexandra Fisch
The Ziv Tzedakah Fund doesn't work like your normal charity. Danny Siegel, its founder and chairman, tells the story of a woman from Seattle who needed a meat cutter for her work feeding the homeless. Siegel told her Ziv could provide it. Says Siegel, "She said, 'Where's the form I have to fill out for getting the grant?' We said, 'You just did.'"
Since starting the Ziv Tzedakah Fund 22 years ago, Siegel has raised $6 million for a vast array of what he calls "mitzvah projects." These projects come from individuals and small organizations, from people he calls "Mitzvah Heroes" (a term he coined himself and hopes to trademark in the future). These "Mitzvah Heroes" are people who devote themselves to tzedakah (acts of righteousness), gemulut chasadim (deeds of lovingkindness) and lirdof tzedek (the pursuit of social justice).
The nearly 150 projects the Ziv Tzedakah Fund supports are mostly small grass roots endeavors. His largest grant in 2002 was $52,950, for the Israel National Therapeutic Riding Association, which provides horseriding lessons to disabled children. His smallest? $95.63 for a class of kids from Tennessee who were collecting 6 million paperclips to commemorate the number of dead from the Holocaust. A typical project is "A Package From Home," which puts together boxes for Israeli soldiers filled with items that don't come in normal rations. It began about 10 years ago when Barbara Silverman started cooking hot meals for the soldiers. But since the start of the second Intifada, Silverman has sent boxes filled with mittens, warm hats and toiletries. M&M's are the latest addition to the boxes. Her funding in 2002 was $5,813.
With his thick East Coast accent and his casual fashion sense, Siegel is not the person you expect to see as the head of a major non-profit. But he is obsessively focused on mitzvot; he seems to think of nothing else. Unmarried and without children, he travels the country seeking to inspire new "Mitzvah Heroes." Despite suffering from ADHD (Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder), he still has written 25 books, with titles like 1+1=3 and 37 Other Mitzvah Principles For a Meaningful Life and Heroes and Miracle Workers.
Ziv began in the early '80s when Siegel brought a modest - make that very modest - bit of Tzedakah on one of his first trips to Israel: one dollar. He was following the Talmudic adage that travelers on their way to do Tzedakah are protected by G-d. He donated it and by his next trip, friends and acquaintances gave him $955 to give away. "I started asking people to give me money," he says. "Money first came from friends, relatives, and I already knew about 50 Rabbis who had discretionary funds."
The next step was to find mitzvah projects worthy of receiving the money. "Once you go looking for good people, you start finding them all over the place. Then it's really easy," Siegel says. "You just have to make sure that they're doing what they say they're doing and not wasting the money."
The principle is simple: life-size mitzvah projects - not massive building campaigns or abstract, far-flung projects - inspire others to become "Mitzvah Heroes." Siegel explains, "I know that if I came to you and said, 'Here is a guy. It's gonna take you four hours and you are going to keep his life from going under,' you are going to jump at the opportunity."
With only two paid employees, Siegel gets the word out through a mailing list of 15,000, his website (www.ziv.org), Mitzvah Hero Conferences and just plain word-of-mouth.
Acting as the eyes and ears for the often-distracted Siegel is Naomi Eisenberger. Eisenberger, now the managing director of the fund, has been helping Siegel since 1991. She started as a volunteer then closed her retail business to commit herself entirely to Ziv. Now she works tirelessly on the daily details of the foundation, networking, and just trying to make sure Ziv continues on a smooth path. Siegel admits his work could not be accomplished without her, while she describes him as "clearly a genius."
Then there is Arnie Draiman, known as the Ziv Agent in Israel. He coordinates and advises the organization on matters pertaining to Israel. "Having a contact 'on the ground' in Israel, one who knows 'the system' offers us immeasurable flexibility and insight into our efforts in that country," the Ziv November 2003 Annual Report states.
Growing up in Virginia, Siegel was immersed in community service. He was International President of USY, and his mother was a member of Hadassah. His father, a doctor, wanted Danny to follow his career path. But Danny had other ideas. "Once you hang out with the mitzvah heroes, you get hooked," he explains.
Although Siegel is now 59 years old and has never married, he has not lost the hope of having children of his own. "The fact that kids are involved with mitzvahs is good and wonderful and so forth, but it is not the same," he says. "You still have to have your own kids."
Siegel's next project is a book that will describe everything families need to know for Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. And he's not talking just about the party. He wants to put the "mitzvah" back into Bar Mitzvah, to speak.
Last year, Ziv Tzedakah Fund began supporting AMUTA, created for the emotional support of fiancés of fallen soldiers in the Israeli Defense Forces. The Heimowitz family of Kiryat Ono started the group after their youngest daughter, Michal, lost her fiancé, Lt. Avi Book, 22. It is not often that the people whom Ziv helps can express their heartfelt thanks to Siegel. And he doesn't expect it. This is one of the replies from the Heimowitz family:
In the names of all of the girlfriends and all of those who sleep in the ground, I thank you from the bottom of my heart. I really don't know how to put a sentence together to express my thanks.
Letters like this provide Siegel with the motivation he needs to change the world, one mitzvah at a time.
For more on the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, see www.ziv.org. The fund is currently not accepting requests for funding of new programs.
Minyan of heroes
When: Sunday, Jan. 18
Where: Congregation Beth Am, 5050 Del Mar Heights Rd., Carmel Valley
Call (858) 481-8454 for more information.
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