Philanthropist puts Jewish tenets into practice

September 28, 1990|By Diane Winston

Like so many Jewish stories, this one begins with a mother. But unlike fictional kvetches against overbearing mamas, this story's happy ending springs from maternal advice.

In 1975, Edythe Siegel told her son Danny to visit a senior citizen center in Israel. An observant Jew, Danny Siegel was setting off for the Holy Land with an extra $955 -- a special cache that family and friends, following Jewish custom, asked him to give to charity.

Mr. Siegel stopped in at Life Line for the Old, the Jerusalem program that teaches elderly people handicrafts they can sell. There he saw aging men and women flush with the joy of creativity, proud of their work and their worth.

"It was a super-duper, wowie-zowie kind of place," recalled Mr. Siegel, 46, a Rockville resident, who has written six books of poetry. "Once you see a project like that you can't get enough."

Fifteen years and $875,000 later, Mr. Siegel still hasn't had enough. A one-man philanthropic agency, he distributes money to grass-roots groups in the United States and Israel. This High Holiday season, the 10 days between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, Mr. Siegel is bringing his "mitzvah" message to the "minyan" -- that is, he will talk to congregants at Har Shalom, a conservative synagogue in Potomac, about doing good deeds.

"On Yom Kippur, people leave everyday worries behind and think in higher terms," said Mr. Siegel, who studied at a Jewish seminary but who is not a rabbi. "The liturgy asks, 'Who shall live and who shall die?' It talks about sinning and mistreating people. It says 'I want to change.' The Hebrew word for change is 'tshuva,' which means to turn, to turn to your true self.

"On Yom Kippur, if we dig deep into our true selves, we will find Jewish treasures buried inside. We examine ourselves and become stronger people. We reintegrate ourselves into Jewish community life."

Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement, begins at sunset today. During this holy day, Jews around the world pray and fast. According to tradition, when Yom Kippur ends, God has inscribed the fate of all in the Book of Life.

Mr. Siegel believes that "tzedakah," which means justice and describes the Jewish way of giving, is central to Jewish life. His BTC organization, the Ziv Tzedakah (Radiant Justice) Fund, which raises money in the United States and Canada, distributed $165,000 to 70 charities last year. The fund favors projects with low overhead so gifts can be used for equipment or direct services.

Mr. Siegel himself takes no salary from the fund -- earning a "decent" enough living from writing and lecturing to pay the rent on a two-bedroom apartment.

"You are dealing with humble people with very simple ideas," said Mr. Siegel, who dubs do-gooders "mitzvah heroes." "And if you watch television, read the newspapers, talk to friends, there's no end to it. There are lots and lots of fabulous people out there."

Those fabulous people work with the hungry, the homeless, the downtrodden and the disabled. Among the projects Ziv Tzedakah supports are:

* Diapers, Bottles and Formulas, a Seattle program that collects baby necessities for the 2,000 homeless toddlers in the city.

* Christian Service Program, an outreach program designed by Sister Margaret McCaffrey, a Shreveport, La., nun that provides everything from food to housing.

* Ma'on LaTinok, a program begun by Hadassah Levi, an Israeli woman who began raising children with Down's syndrome a dozen years ago.

* The Therapeutic Riding Club of Israel, a program that uses horseback riding in physical therapy for disabled people.

In Baltimore, Ziv Tzedakah has given money to a crisis center that Chana Weinberg runs for battered Jewish women.

"A lot of people want to do good works and don't know how. He doesn't think of how and what. He just does," Mrs. Weinberg said of Mr. Siegel.

"He sees a need and he tries to fill it. He is a very unusual man."

Danny Siegel would not say he is unusual -- except in self-deprecating ways.

He describes himself as a poet who isn't depressed, a grown man whose father wonders when he'll get a real job, a regular guy with a secret stash of frequent-flier mileage.

When he's not building that bank of flying miles, commuting between Israel and the United States or trekking to projects he thinks the fund could support, Mr. Siegel writes and lectures. In addition to his poetry -- which covers everything from young love to the land of Israel -- he writes about Jewish themes. He has penned several works on tzedakah. Now he's exploring the Jewish concept of "kavod" -- human dignity.

"I will go to a synagogue or a Jewish Community Center and do a workshop on how people should treat each other, how human dignity works out," he explained.

To illustrate kavod, he could just as easily send out Ziv Tzedakah's annual report -- because the Jewish way of giving is undergirded by respect for each individual's innate worth. Mr. Siegel says he sees that worth in many people.

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