When one man influences your life, you never forget him. When the same man impacts on the lives of more than ten thousand young Jews, his selfless life of sharing and inspiring deserves recording. That man is Danny Siegel from the Washington D.C. area.
As a dynamic young leader in the United Synagogue Youth Movement, his energy and enthusiasm for Judaism and the State of Israel was infectious. Elected the National President of United Synagogue Youth, at age seventeen, he was quite simply an inspiration. Upon his return from his first USY Summer Pilgrimage to Israel, his excitement about Eretz Y’Israel was so overwhelming that I knew I had to follow in his footsteps. In retrospect, my first trip to Israel with the United Synagogue Youth Summer in Israel, at the age of sixteen, changed my life forever. I still remember Danny pointing to the separation fence which kept Jews away from the Old City, telling me the First Temple was within those walls thousands of years ago, and that we Jews were not allowed to venture forth as it was under Jordanian control. I now live on the spot where we stood when I was sixteen and he was eighteen. Jerusalem has been liberated and Danny moved on to change thousands of lives over forty years of annual summers in the Jewish homeland.
Why does a young man with charisma, wit and energy decide to become a poet and focus his life on the teaching of Tzedakah to over ten thousand Jewish-American youth?
As Danny returned to Israel year after year, at a time when such travel was exceptional, friends began giving him money to give to those in need when he arrived. The amount increased with every visit. This important element to his summers in Israel became a life journey, discovering the goodness of individuals helping others without organizations to support their work. The simple kindness of good people doing mitzvahs became a passion. He wrote a journal of exactly to whom he gave the funds, and encouraged others to come to Israel themselves, to visit these special people, and to give directly to help them continue their good work. This report was a guide for me on many of our visits to Israel over the years. Meeting Danny’s “Mitzvah Heroes” in person enriched the lives of those he guided to their doorsteps.
As donations rose, there was no option but to create a foundation to distribute the funds in an orderly manner. The Canadian branch of Ziv Tzedakah fund is still accepting contributions. Not one penny of the funds collected went to Danny Siegel whose full time commitment to the venture was all encompassing. A total of over 14 million dollars were given to worthy projects both in North America and in Israel by this fund which evolved from those wanting to help “Mitzvah heroes “ previously ignored by classic institutions.
Perhaps because of Danny’s life story and personal experiences, there was great focus on the needs of Down’s syndrome children, those with Cerebral Palsy, the elderly, the poor, and children with life threatening diseases.
Hired by the United Synagogue Movement to teach the essence of Tzedakah to teen age participants on annual summer pilgrimages for over forty years, the development of creative projects and inspiring young adults became a way of life and purpose for Danny Siegel. He explained to American teenagers that getting “good grades” does not make you a “good person.” For teens focused on the last two years of High School and hoping to be accepted by the University of their choice, this was a reminder that much more defines their lives than they had thus far considered. He taught that developing the essence of one’s humanity defines the ultimate worth of an individual. Teaching the young to think creatively about the good that they themselves can do in the world and dipping into the “tikun olam” consciousness, resulted in a most extraordinary list of opportunities – the previously untapped potential of young adults learning to give of themselves. After the U.S.hurricanes which left thousands homeless, campaigns were developed to buy George Forman grills for those who no longer had a stove. Massive drives were held to collect old deactivated cellphones still capable of calling “911” – to give to battered women and homeless people at risk by their very lifestyle. Teens were encouraged to drive cancer patients to treatments, give blood, and to look to the needs of their local communities. Young adults were inspired to part with the stuffed animals that had collected in their homes over the years – to give them to their local police, firemen and emergency services so that small children involved in distressing experiences could select an animal of their own, to hug and give them comfort . Raising money for dog food for the animals of homeless people was incredibly exciting. For many of the homeless express the feeling that their pet is their “best friend” and not at all a luxury in their lives. It has been proven that these pets add years to the lives of their owners. Similarly, taking one’s own pet to visit patients at hospitals or to the infirm in their homes, is another mitzvah project that teens have shared. The youth were taught to spot opportunities to be creative and at the same time make a difference in the lives of others. They learned how to approach food providers to redirect the wasted or excess food to the poor. While being taught in Israel, most teens went back to their homes with a new understanding of their own potential in their own communities. Danny explained that his goal was to teach the youth how to discover in themselves the things they never knew they had to offer others. The potential projects and the avenues to share caring and love with those most in need are too many to mention here, but for those wishing to follow in these footsteps, Danny is available for further consultation.
At the age of 25, Danny began writing poetry. It flowed from a source within him and he had no idea if what he had written was of merit. While a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, he became friends with the then 40 year old Eli Wiesel. They studied text together and Danny asked if Eli would look at his poems and give him an honest assessment of his work. Eli Wiesel told him to continue writing. And so he did. His first poem was published by Moment Magazine and was entitled “Gym Shoes and Irises.” At present, Danny Siegel has authored 29 books. Eight books are poetry. Fifteen books are about Tikkum Olam. Two books are written about Jewish values based on religious text, and focus on the concept of Mitzvah Heroes. One book co-authored with Allan Gould is a book of Jewish Humor and his latest book is one full of “love poetry.”
Many phrases have been attributed to Danny Siegel. He has been called “The mitzvah maniac,” “The Pied piper of Tzedakah,” the “Feeling man’s thinker” and “The most famous unknown Jewish poet in America.” These are all labels he wears quite humbly…and with a bit of humor expressed with a slight smile and twinkle in his eye. Danny Siegel is totally available for further guidance and inspiration. His email is- firstname.lastname@example.org.
The interview with Danny Siegel ended with his sharing his favorite quote from Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson , who said”
“ Tzedakah is not about giving… tzedakah is about being.”