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February 12, 1988 - Image 25

Resource type:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1988-02-12

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

Siegel doesn't see himself as working
miracles, but as one who teaches and who
opens people to their own potential for
gamilut chasidim, acts of loving kindness,
within them. Perhaps part of his success
is in communicating to audiences how they
can tap into their own goodness. His ad-
vice is always eminently practical, and in
the most recent of his ten books he offers
116 "practical mitzvah suggestions," rang-
ing from establishing a food bank in your
synagogue to bribing driving-age children
to use part of their car time for mitzvah
work — or else they can't use the car.
"Americans say, 'give from the heart,' "
notes Siegel, "but in Jewish tradition it's
OK to apply pressure. Even charity given
begrudgingly is charity."
And no one is too young to do good
"I wonder why I waited until I was 30
years old to get involved," he says.

Happy is the man whose deeds are greater
than his learning.

Midrash, Eliyahu Rabbah, 17

Danny Siegel grew up in a home in the
Washington area suffused with Jewish
tradition and and a sense of giving. His
father is a doctor; his mother, he says, is
a saint. He has an older brother, now Mar-
ried and with a family, and an older sister
who is retarded and has cerebral palsy.
"He had a tough time growing up in that
household, with his sister receiving so
much attention," said Alan Gould, a suc-
cessful free-lance writer in 'Ibronto and
close friend of Siegel's.
But it was a warm, caring environment
and each Passover the family would invite
several brain-damaged children to their
Seder, in addition to inviting Jewish ser-
vicemen during World War II and the
Korean War.
Edythe Siegel says her youngest son was
always thoughtful about others, whether
it was family members or strangers. She
said that as a child, when Danny saw beg-
gars on the street, he used to ask her why
they had to stand outside and ask for
money. And she recalled how, when Dan-
ny and his brother were still in Hebrew
school, they surprised their parents by
buying trees in Israel in their honor as a
The family belonged to a small Conser-
vative congregation, the Arlington-Fairfax
Jewish Center.
Danny attended services and Hebrew
school but his intense Jewish activity

Gym Shoes
and Irises



Siegel tells children not to wait for adults to do acts
of kindness. You're never too young to start, he says.

began with his leadership role in United
Synagogue Youth (USY), the youth branch
of the Conservative movement. After
several years of increasing involvement on
the local, regional and national levels, he
was elected national president in 1962
when he was a senior in high school and
logged some 20,000 miles traveling on
behalf of the organization.
For college, he enrolled in the joint pro-
gram offered by Columbia University and
the Jewish Theological Seminary in New
York, and was well on his way to becom-
ing a Conservative rabbi when he dropped
out of the Seminary about a year before
Friends and former classmates offer
varying explanations as to why Siegel left
and whether or not, in hindsight, it was a
mistake. They note that it was the late
1960s, a time of war in Vietnam and social
turmoil across the U.S. Siegel was involved
in social action work and was unhappy
with the institutionalization of the
Seminary. He doesn't enjoy talking about
that period of personal trauma — he also
ended a romantic relationship shortly
before the wedding during that time — but
says he felt "creatively squashed" at the
Seminary, where the administration was in-
sensitive to the needs and concerns of the
Siegel says he has no regrets about leav-
ing, and that he has more freedom pursu-
ing his mitzvah work now than had he

become a rabbi. But some of his friends say
he suffered for his decision, struggling
financially for more than a decade and
lacking the credentials for some positions
in the community.
Despite his bitterness about the
Seminary, Siegel has maintained the
strongest of ties with USY, leading sum-
mer trips to Israel for hundreds of USY
teenagers each of the last 12 years. He sen-
sitizes them to tzedakah by showing them
first-hand the work of the mitzvah heroes
there he strives to emulate.
How long can Siegel keep up his frenetic
pace, traveling about 40 percent of the year
for lectures and workshops, leading sum-
mer tours to Israel, and maintaining his en-
thusiasm about tzedakah in the face of
large-scale greed?
"He's driven by the fact that he never
sees his own success," says Rabbi Ron
Hoffberg, "but that's not so. The effect he's
had simply on a generation of USY kids
has been enormous. It's just hard to chart."
"I sense a frustration in him at times,"
notes Alan Gould, "and I'd like to see him
happier. The work he has chosen for
himself is very hard, and very lonely at
Siegel is not complaining, though. He
wants to continue his tzedakah work, and
acknowledges that he is exhausted and
frustrated at times but never bitter. "It's
alright for Jews to spend tens of thousands
of dollars on a simcha — but what angers
me is when they don't think to share some
of that money for tzedakah."
Siegel would like to expand his work and
be able to give out larger sums of money
without losing his personalized, hands-on
touch. Many of his friends feel Siegel's
work would be ideal for a large Jewish
foundation to underwrite, and Siegel says
he is exploring those possibilities.
"What I would really like to see a few
years down the road is that people would
become so imbued with the need to do
their own mitzvah work and tzedakah that
I would become irrelevant and could go
back to writing poetry," he says with a
In the meantime, though, Siegel himself
is proof positive of the message he seeks
to teach both children and adults: that you
don't have to be an extraordinary person
to be a mitzvah hero. Danny Siegel does
not claim to be a saint; he simply does
saintly work, day in and day out. O

For copies of Siegel's tzedakah report, or for
donations, contact: Ziv Tzedakah Fund, Inc. 263
Congressional Lane, #708 Rockville, Maryland
20852 301-468-0060



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