Mitzvahs and More Mitzvahs

by Danny Siegel

The Story of Danny Siegel’s Ziv Tzedakah Fund

"When I was young, I admired clever people. As I grew old, I came to admire kind people."
Abraham Joshua Heschel, z"l

For Lack Of a More Creative Term, The Formative Years

My Abba, Julius Siegel, Zichrono Livracha, moved to Northern Virginia in 1940 to set up a medical practice as an old time country doctor. For more than a half-century, he would treat, heal, cure, comfort, and care for three generations of patients, thousands in all over the years. Thousands. If you wanted to do a study of how I got from here to there in the world of Tikkun Olam, you would not have to be Freud or Adler to see some connection. Add to this the following: in those days, much of Northern Virginia was still rural, farms and country life prevailed. Tyson’s Corner – now a grand shopping mall — was just that, a corner. In fact, the driver’s side of my father’s car used to sport one of those old-time police car spotlights, so that when he made house calls in remote places like Herndon, he could locate the big barn, and the dirt road, which led to the house with the sick, the elderly, the new mother, waiting for my Dad’s magic hands. The story, substantiated by my Eema, Zichrona Livracha — and those who knew her would know if she said it, it was true — was that during World War II, the IRS investigated my Dad. It seems he ran so many cars into the ground from the house calls that he was compelled to buy used car after used car—the prevailing thought was that he was running a "hot car" business.

I rode with my father often. From early childhood I hung out in his office. Time and time again I witnessed the kind of people he treated: kind people, simple people, people who would give you the shirt off their back, bring you in and feed you if you were hungry. Not all of them, of course. But there were so many, and those were the ones my father loved most to treat. It was these early experiences that would form the foundation of my later work.

Throughout my entire childhood I was surrounded by physicians like Abba: OB’s, ENT’s, GP’s, a brain surgeon who drank a little too much, a general surgeon who saved my brother’s life when he was a few weeks old. Healers, all of them. And Menschen.

In our community Dr. Julius Siegel was known as a Ba’al Tzedakah, a person who used his Tzedakah money wisely. He gave where and when it was needed; he was there to make a difference. And while there were times when his particular act of Tzedakah might be known within the community, he often gave so quietly — drawing no attention to himself — no one could trace the source back to Abba.

My Eema, Edythe Siegel, was the classic Tzadeket – not just because she was so involved in Sisterhood, Seaboard Branch of Women’s League, and Hadassah. She was wise, recognized needs, responded, cared. It was her remarkable real-live caring that most people would remember about her. Effortless caring. And she surrounded herself with like-minded women—Louise Bernfeld, Alice Quint, Zenda Arkin, and others of similar heart. It was an astonishing chevrah. In retrospect, I came to realize that it was no surprise that my Eema’s three heroes were Golda Meir, Henrietta Szold, and Eleanor Roosevelt. They were cut of the same cloth: grand women, rare souls, women of action.

The Arlington Fairfax Jewish Center

I was raised at the Arlington-Fairfax Jewish Center (now Etz Chaim). There, four people stand out as influences: Rabbi Noah Golinkin, whose enormous Talmudic knowledge and personal attention to me, his "special Talmid", made it clear that without serious Torah study, I could not teach; Mrs. Rachel Reinitz, our beloved Hebrew school teacher, who knew the Nazis face to face and told us about what it was like; Harold Schlaffer, principal of the Hebrew High School who made Torah a joy to study and fun as well; and "Tanta Bluma", Blanche Davidson, who was the Seaboard Regional USY Director. All taught us that Yiddishkeit and Menschlichkeit go together, are inextricably bound so tight, and should be a goal to strive for, every day, every moment.

These were High Times in Arlington. USY was flourishing, As a group, my friends (some of whom would remain so for decades) spent much of our time in shul—Friday night, Shabbat morning, and who knows how often during the week. It was there that I began my USY "career" as lowly telephone committee chairman. In a short time it was on to chapter treasurer and president, regional treasurer and president, and finally international (in those days we called it "national") president of USY. Looking back all were life-changing, authentic, deep and warm experiences, beyond mere nostalgia. Clearly the regional and national presidencies, and most definitely USY Pilgrimage 1961 were the "transformative" experiences of the teen-age years.

Running Out Of Space

It was the private high school, symptoms of LD – learning differently/learning disabilities, ADD, poetic tendencies that all came into play during these teenage years. After high school I pursued a Bachelor’s in Literature from Columbia School of General Studies, Bachelors and Masters of Hebrew Literature from JTS, with particular emphasis and joy in Biblical studies and love of Biblical philology, and then rushed out into the Big World. Rarely would I hold a regular job, as my Abba had suspected all along. (When talking to friends, he referred to me as "a dreamer", and was more correct than he could have ever imagined.) Life was filled with synagogue lectures on various aspects of being Jewish, and one glorious nine-month stint driving the Atid Bookmobile around the country, more than 130 stops, selling Jewish books, riding high on the interstates for Torah and The Almighty.

How I Got Into Tzedakah

It was so incredibly simple, some people still don’t believe it. On my 9th or 10th trip to Israel — January 1975 — around the height of the founding of Tzedakah collectives throughout North America. I had spent the year between August 1973-1974 in Israel, and had the urge to return for a month. This time, though, rather than wait for people to give me $1.00 to give to Tzedakah, I began to ask for money, and wound up with $955. When I got there, I went in search for the right people and places to give it. I had no theory, no foresight or principals to guide me other than that the money should "make a difference". I knew the first person I donated to— my Eema had recommended her to me. From then on, I asked friends, "Who is doing good stuff, Doing Good?" From that point on it was easy, and distributing the money went very smoothly.

When I returned home, I thought to send a report (all of a whopping 2 pages, compared to last year’s 40-page Ziv Annual Report) to those who had given me money…my friends, relatives, and a number of rabbis from their personal and discretionary funds. Foolishly, I thought that was that, the end of the story. But they, and others, started giving me more money, and so the next trip it was about $1,600, then $2,900, then more than $6,000, and at the $12,000+ mark, friends urged me to establish a non-profit, tax-exempt 501( c)(3) IRS corporation. Without some legal structure, I just couldn’t keep taking money, giving it away – in North America by then, as well as in Israel, with no official bookkeeping records other than a hand-written journal and the reports. So in April, 1981, Ziv Tzedakah Fund, Inc. was incorporated, with the help of former International USY President, Marc Gary, who asked a pro bono attorney in his firm to file the papers. A similar fund, Ziv Tzedakah Foundation was also established at that time in Canada. I named it "Ziv", meaning "radiance" for two reasons — the radiance of the actual Mitzvah of giving Tzedakah, and also the radiance of the Mitzvah heroes….

Mitzvah heroes — that is what made us unique. Not so long after my first venture, I realized this Mitzvah work was all about finding giants of Tikkun Olam, usually simple people out there Doing It Right. For me — if people ask, "What have I contributed to Tzedakah/Tikkun Olam in North America"? The answer is most definitely making Mitzvah heroes a central, crucial element of the entire process, for without them, we are left just with organizations—inanimate structures with no human face. But none that you could hug, sit at the feet of, learn from the Wonders of Tzedakah. None to look to and say to yourself, "Somehow, some way, to some whatever-degree-I-can, I think I want to be like that."

I remember the excitement when we had reached the $1,000,000 mark since we were established. Today we give away more than $500,000 a year, without fund-raising. It is just this simple—we mail our Annual Report in April, along with the November Update, and whatever funds come in we give away. Period. End of sentence. One other note: while the standard 90/10 Rule — 90% of the money comes from 10% of the contributors is a useful and valid strategy for some Tzedakah funds — Ziv was built on (what some people call) "small" contributions. It is true that recently we have been fortunate to receive several contributions in the $1,000-$5,000+ range, we continue doing our Tikkun Olam work based to a very great extent on the smaller donations ($18, 25, 36, 50, 54, 72, 100). It is a constant reminder to us to be sure that every dollar makes a difference. And, besides, in our thinking, there is no such thing as a small donation, a small Mitzvah, or a small piece of Tikkun Olam.

The simplest-of-simple principles guide us: we keep our overhead to the barest minimum (salaries are raised by outside contributions), and Mitzvah heroes — find them, learn what they need to do their work and give them funds for what they need, to whatever extent we can. We share their stories in our reports, meet them, spend time with them, work with them, learn from them….it’s what we call The Duh Principle. What more could someone want than to be surrounded by and to be working with The Mitzvah Giants? And that’s the one really strange thing about this Grand Discovery. Despite all of my background, the positive pointing in the right Mitzvah-direction, parents, USY, the teachers at Arlington-Fairfax, no one got me to see that it was all about Mitzvah heroes. It just happened.

About twelve years ago, Naomi Eisenberger from Millburn, NJ, started to volunteer for Ziv. (For a time, my sister-in-law Bena had been the treasurer.) It was then that we started to grow in many directions and it became apparent that without her efforts I would have had to shut down the organization. Naomi was hired and is now the Managing Director, taking care of too many things to describe, and allowing us to expand into many areas—Ziv HeroIsrael trips to Israel (our third in February, 2004), Mitzvah Hero conferences (we’ve had 5), special grants to produce the Ziv Giraffe curriculum — written by Rabbi Steven Bayar — now in more than 600 schools and other educational settings…the Alef-to-Tav on how to grow up to be a Mitzvah hero. Years back, David Morris was our part-time Ziv Agent in Israel. Today, Arnie Draiman fills that position based in Jerusalem, at 2/3 time. My office is my living room. Naomi’s is the second bedroom of her home. Arnie’s is in his salon. This year, a Ziv Fellow, Merrill Alpert, former youth Director at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino, CA, is spending a year in Israel deeply involved in our Mitzvah work, surrounding herself with Mitzvah heroes, and teaching others to seek out the Good People. There are no secretaries, no separate phone lines, no advertising—just the three of us talking, emailing, doing whatever we need to change the world, l’at, l’at, little by little.

Two final things you should know. This summer will be my 29th as USY Israel Pilgrimage Tzedakah Resource Person. In 1976, Jules Gutin and Sandy Silverstein offered me the job of Scholar in Residence on Pilgrimage, which soon developed into the Tzedakah resource position. There have been some 13,000-14,000 Pilgrims right there in front of me, now including children of former Pilgrims, meeting the heroes, exchanging ideas during my talks, learning from me, teaching me. Were it not for these summer opportunities with USY which brought me to Israel every summer, I do not know where Ziv would be today. Nor would I have any idea how Tzedakah would be playing out in communities in the U.S. and Canada were it not for these Pilgrims returning to their home communities to share their summer experiences. Pilgrimage has also allowed me to have Ziv summer interns. Over the years there have been from one to four each summer, some returning a second time, on the rare occasions a third time. Today, several are educators, rabbis, Jewish professionals, informed lay people, all trained and taught on Ziv, and now teaching in their own unique style the very principles that Ziv embodies. Only by spending those hot summer days "in the thick of it" could they become advanced students and teachers of this kind of Tikkun Olam.

It has been as simple as that — from Alef to Tav. There is nothing magical or mystical about it — nothing requiring two PhD’s or expertise in software configuration management. Find some Mitzvah heroes, find some money, work with them, give to them, and be happy.

© Arnie Draiman Productions, 2007