It happened again tonight. As in past summers here in Israel, tonight I participated in Danny Siegel’s Annual Mitzvah Heroes Dinner. Danny magically weaves the invitations among Heroes and donors and those who just want to be part of tremendous chesed projects. I’m always humbled being in the presence of so many great but often unknown Mitzvah Heroes and do-ers. With the incredible assistance of his right-hand man, Arnie Draiman, Danny has managed over the last 40+ years to discover and support dozens of Israel & American organizations. Tonight was no different, except that Danny encouraged us not to sit with people we know, but rather to sit with these do-ers of tremendous acts. During the course of the evening I spoke with “Alice” who spent the last 25+ years assisting elderly, indigent Russian olim who suddenly arrived in Israel from 1989 – 2000. I met another fellow who has a menagerie of cats, dogs, birds and hopefully one day soon – an elephant – that are trauma therapy animals. I had to hear from him what type of comfort an elephant could possibly offer and it was clear that this man was just hoping someone was going to ask him. I have a new-found respect for elephants.
Danny thanked Rabbi Paul Freedman for believing in him and bringing him to Israel & Russia in the late 1970’s and for the last 40+ years Danny has continued to work with USY Israel Pilgrims to learn about “how to do tzedakah.” Danny has influenced 1000’s of teens.
Another Mitzvah hero came over to me, seeing that Danny had warmly greeted me. She wanted to know my connection to Danny, when I first met him. I hadn’t thought about this in a long time.
It was USY International Convention in 1968 at the Statler Hilton Hotel in New York City, my first airplane flight from Chicago. Among many other highlights (including first setting my gaze on my future husband although neither of us knew it at the time), was a Tzedakah learning session with Danny. I remember that he stood up in front of 1500 USYers, spoke about being in Russia and meeting Refusniks. He then said to this large assembled group, “I need 10 USYers who will commit to writing letters to Refusniks twice a month until you hear they are free. Who’s interested?” Dozens of hands shot up. He continued, “I need 15 USYers who are willing to visit local nursing homes and bring Shabbat flowers once a month for this entire school year. Who’s in?” More hands up and he continued with these “easy” projects for the next 20 minutes, enlisting several hundred teens to step outside their comfort zone. I was one of them. With the help of my CHUSY Youth Director, Larry Englehart, my USY Chapter visited nursing homes on Fridays as well as hospitals and we even blew shofar (where allowed) before Rosh Hashanah.
Even as an adult Danny motivated my husband and me and sometimes during our synagogue Israel trips to do even more mitzvot: Shwarma party with IDF Soldiers at the Gaza border; goody bags to IDF Soldiers at check-points; Pizza party with IDF Soldiers in Bethlehem at Rachel’s Tomb; delivering flowers on a Friday at Hadassah Hospital; bringing donated wedding dresses from the US for indigent Israeli brides; installing a Mitzvah Crib in our synagogue lobby for donations of baby items to give to the needy in our nearby community; collecting store gift cards (especially supermarkets) and handing them out to homeless standing on street corners…and the list goes on.
Then this incredible moment. I’m sitting with Rabbi Paul & Nina Freedman, Rabbi Ron Hoffberg & Rabbi Jonathan Porath and this Chasidic looking guy walks over to Paul and starts to tell him that his life was changed because he went on USY Russia/Israel Pilgrimage in 1982, with Danny Siegel and Rabbi Porath, that at the age of 16 this man knew that he couldn’t waste his time with routine teenage activities but think about his future. He has 8 children and oodles of grandchildren – almost all in Israel with him as they all made Aliyah 2 years ago from New Jersey. Danny insisted that we all wear name tags. I saw this man’s name, it was familiar, but I didn’t recognize him. I asked where he grew up, only to learn that he was my husband’s Bar Mitzvah student in our first congregation in Montclair, NJ (Shomrei Emunah) in the mid 1970’s. And now because of Danny & Jonny’s combined influence, he has become a supporter of Danny’s Mitzvah work. He added that my husband put him on the path, at the age of 13, to look for meaning in his life.
Danny Siegel is a character, known for his “shtick,” his weird sense of humor, his appetite for whatever someone else is eating and a quirky knowledge of Talmudic stories and trivia.
But Danny is more than this. He is an important part of the fabric of the American Jewish Community. He inspires thousands of Bar/Bat Mitzvah students (my children included) to create tzedakah/mitzvah projects as part of their training/learning period. He has influenced synagogues and Federations and JCCs and Hillels and Chavurot and summer camps and youth movements to incorporate tzedakah into their normal calendars of programming. He pushes us to learn and to share the learning.
And all this while writing hundreds of beautiful poems and prose found within more than 30 of his published works (find them on Amazon).
Danny doesn’t know that I’m writing this and he probably will be a bit upset with me. But that 15-year-old girl within me says it’s time for me to say
Todah Rabah Danny, Tziku L’mitzvot! (let’s do more mitzvot together!)