It all started with less than $1,000.
In January 1975, Danny Siegel visited Israel for the ninth or 10th time. On previous trips, he would bring money that others gave him, to be distributed as tzedakah, following a tradition that says those traveling to do a mitzvah will be safe from harm. This time, he asked for people to give him such contributions, and set out with $955.
He didn’t go with any plan, just the idea that the money should “make a difference” and go to those who were doing good things on limited budgets.
That began an odyssey that has led to Siegel being considered an authority on “microphilanthropy.”
The Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which Siegel established in 1981 as that year’s Tzedakah donations hit five figures, is now nearing $10 million in cumulative donations and distributions.
Siegel will be in Birmingham the weekend of Sept. 14 for a series of community programs about small-time philanthropy and its huge potential.
Siegel, who has published numerous books of poetry, has written extensively about “mitzvah heroes,” who take a small idea and run with it, such as collecting leftover food from restaurants and bakeries, and delivering it to homeless shelters.
One “mitzvah hero” he frequently cites is Trevor Ferrell, who at age 11 saw a report about the homeless in Philadelphia, Pa. He started taking blankets to street people sleeping on steam vents in downtown Philadelphia. Friends and relatives were inspired by his example, and a house was refurbished for the street people, and named Trevor’s Place.
Siegel also travels with United Synagogue Youth Israel Pilgrimage each summer. A past USY International president, Siegel leads tours of mitzvah projects in Israel, teaching about how small projects can yield big results.
Some “mitzvah heroes” he visited in Israel included Hadassah Levi, who made her life’s work the rescue of abandoned Down Syndrome babies from hospitals; Myriam Mendilow, who found Jerusalem’s poor, elderly residents on the streets of the city and gave them respect and new purpose in her program, Yad L’Kashish (Lifeline for the Old),;and Uri Lupolianski, a young teacher who started Israel’s now famous medical equipment lending program, Yad Sarah, in his living room (and is now the current mayor of Jerusalem).
The Ziv fund receives small contributions from across the country, then makes allocations to projects around the world.
In addition to his poetry and tzedakah books, Siegel co-wrote “The Unorthodox Book of Jewish Records and Lists,” and authored a children’s book that was illustrated by Garth Potts, executive director of the Levite Jewish Community Center in Birmingham.
On Sept. 14, Siegel will speak at the N.E. Miles Jewish Day School, asking “What do Bruce Springsteen and Steven Spielberg Know About Mitzvot That We Don’t Know?” The evening will begin with a family fried chicken dinner, at 5:30 p.m. The program will be at 7 p.m. Cost for the dinner is $7 for adults, $5 for children. The program is appropriate for ages 8 and up, babysitting is provided for those who are younger. Reservations are requested at the Day School office.
On Sept. 15, Siegel will kick off a joint weekend of activities between Temple Beth-El and Temple Emanu-El. Siegel frequently visited Birmingham during the tenure of Rabbi Steven Glazer at Beth-El, as the two were roommates at the Jewish Theological Seminary.
A Joint Social Action Shabbat will kick off with a 5:45 p.m. service at Emanu-El, followed by a Social Action Fair. Representatives from community organizations will be on hand to answer questions about local needs and how to volunteer. The fair will include hors d’oeuvres and a wine tasting. A dinner will follow, with the cost being tzedakah for social action.
At the dinner, Siegel will speak about “How You Can Redeem The World.”
On Sept. 16, joint services will be at Beth-El, starting at 9:30 a.m. Siegel will speak about “The Awesomeness of Being Human: Where Heaven and Earth Touch.” A luncheon will follow the service.
That night, the joint Selichot service will be at Emanu-El. Siegel will speak about “Be All That You Can Be: How To Become a Mensch.” The program will begin at 7:30 p.m.
On Sept. 17, Siegel will meet with a team of local philanthropists — the Teen Tzedakah project. Last year, 41 teens participated in the program, through which they raised or contributed $250 for a fund in the Birmingham Jewish Foundation, which was matched by the Frank and Fred Friedman Family Foundation. Participants had several opportunities to learn about tzedakah over the course of the year, and then made allocations of the interest from their endowment funds at the end of the school year.
At noon, Siegel will meet with new members, then with all members at 1 p.m. The program topic will be “My Parents Say They Want Me to Be Happy, Healthy, a Mensch and a Jew, but All They Really Want is for Me to Get Good Grades.”
All programs except for Teen Tzedakah are open to the entire community.
The weekend is underwritten by the Ted Levite Fund of the Temple Beth-El Foundation, the Jacobson Cultural Arts Fund and the Ida Seigel Fund of the Rabbi Grafman Endowment Fund for Temple Emanu-El, and the Frank and Fred Friedman Family Foundation.