Danny Siegel, sometimes known as The Pied Piper of Tzedakah or The Mitzvah Heroes Man, whose one-time decision to collect and distribute charitable funds for Israel turned into a three-decade, multi-million-dollar effort to seek out and help individuals and groups committed to personalized acts of kindness, is calling it quits. Sort of.
A letter a few weeks ago announcing the closing of Siegel’s Ziv Tzedakah Fund was met with expressions of shock and dismay by many who have known Siegel, now 63, and been inspired by his tireless travels, lectures and writings to promote the concept — and fulfillment — of tzedakah for so many years.
Through his 29 books and dozens of annual talks to synagogues, schools and youth groups, he virtually single-handedly promoted the concept of bar and bat mitzvah youngsters donating funds to the needy from gifts received, now an accepted part of the coming-of-age ritual throughout the land. And it was Siegel who preached giving directly to the people here and in Israel he termed "mitzvah heroes" — good people, largely unknown, doing great charitable work, efficiently and effectively, he said.
But with Ziv (Hebrew for light) now giving out well over $1 million a year while continuing to operate essentially as it has since it was founded in 1981, when it had no staff and distributed under $20,000, one could conclude that the charity has become a victim of its own success. It all depends how you look at it.
That is why the story of Danny Siegel’s work is not only about the remarkable achievements of one man — Ziv has given out more than $12 million since its founding — but about how charitable giving has changed over the last 30 years, mostly for good, yet in ways that have made a group like Ziv become superfluous. It also underscores the fact that even in an era where philanthropists are giving upwards of $100 million a year for Jewish causes, an individual raising a tiny percentage of those dollars can have an enormous impact on the practice and philosophy of philanthropy.
Why So Sad?
The letter from the board of directors of Ziv to its thousands of supporters, most of whom probably have met Siegel or heard him lecture, said the founder’s decision was "difficult news for all of us." Naomi Eisenberger, who started as a volunteer and has been Ziv’s only full-time employee for years, says she is "very sad."
But Siegel, who plans to return to writing poetry, his first love, says he is in good health and mystified as to why people have reacted to the news of his retirement from — and of — Ziv with unhappiness.
"I just don’t get it," he said in an interview from his apartment in the Washington suburb of Rockville, Md. "This is a Mazal Tov moment."
And he is right, of course. True, the closing of Ziv marks the end of an era, and a sign that charitable work has become more complex. But it also signals that Siegel, who was international president of USY as a teen and has been teaching Conservative youth ever since, here and on annual summer tours to Israel, has succeeded in educating countless people about how to give charity wisely, and probably hundreds of people in how to continue the work on their own.
It all started, Siegel recalled, when prior to visiting Israel in the summer of 1975, he asked a few friends for some mitzvah money, which he said he would distribute to worthy recipients in Israel. He collected and dispersed $950, part of it going to Yad L’Kashish (Lifeline for the Elderly), a Jerusalem-based group providing creative work opportunities for the elderly and not a recipient of government funding.
When he came back, he issued a brief report to the 40 or so donors about how much he had collected, and how he had spent it. Siegel did not keep a penny. And he kept asking around for little-known, personalized tzedakahs, and found out about the woman who lent out wedding dresses to poor brides, or the group that offered pony rides to blind children, or one that provides big brother-big sister mentoring to young people, and so on.
The pattern has never changed. Collect the money, give it all out quickly, and report on where it went, with Siegel not taking any at all. The next summer it was $1,600, then $2,900, then $6,000, which soon doubled. In 1981, Siegel incorporated Ziv as a nonprofit, tax-exempt corporation as the number of donors and worthy projects grew, and the amount of funds increased. He estimates that Ziv has given to hundreds of causes, Jewish and non-Jewish over the years. "We’ve probably fallen hook, line and sinker for frauds twice over the years, and unwise decisions up to eight times." Not a bad percentage.
At last count Ziv gives more than 92 percent of funds collected directly to charitable, grass-roots projects (about two-thirds in Israel) and spends only about 7 percent on administrative and fund-raising expenses, earning the highest rating — "exceptional" — from Charity Navigator, which evaluates charities’ efficiency.
Praise for Siegel has been virtually universal, from counter-culture donors to UJA-Federation of New York executive vice president and CEO John Ruskay, who noted that Siegel has been "both a hero and role model for many of us. His tzedakah fund has identified righteous leaders and groups who actualize the very best of our values."
Outlived Its Purpose
What’s changed, though, is that "Ziv is not Ziv anymore," Siegel said, explaining that it could no longer operate as efficiently and speedily because of its size. Moreover, many of the donations coming to Ziv are now targeted to specific charities, which is all to the good but eliminates the concept of Ziv matching donors to worthy causes.
In addition, since Ziv has always listed in its report to donors the name, address, contact information and description of the charities where funds were dispersed, many contributors started giving directly to those charities, bypassing Ziv.
It is believed that these charities now receive about five times as much money from the direct contributions than the ones through Ziv.
All of this was fine, Siegel stresses. But it underscored the fact that Ziv had outlived its true purpose. "So the board and I agreed it was time to close it down and for all the talmidim [students of Siegel’s in the field of tzedakah] to go out in their own way to ensure the well-being of our recipients. I have no doubt those needs will be met."
Two of Siegel’s closest talmidim — and only staff — are Eisenberger, who has worked with him for about 13 years, first as a volunteer and then as managing director. And Arnie Draiman, who first volunteered with Siegel 30 years ago and has been Ziv’s Israel representative for the last 10 years, on a part-time basis, scouting out new mitzvah heroes and projects, and keeping in touch with existing ones.
Eisenberger first met Siegel when she brought him to speak at her synagogue in Millburn, N.J., in 1991, where she was president. "He challenged us to sell a Sefer Torah [the synagogue had many of them] and use the money for tzedakah purposes, which we did," she recalled. "In fact, we sold two," and contributed the money to local and Israeli charitable projects.
She did volunteer work for Ziv, then worked part-time and finally full-time, broadening the group’s scope and monitoring the collection and dispersal of funds.
While the average gift today is about $100, she said, up from $18 many years ago, there have been a few $50,000 and $100,000 contributions as well.
"I work out of my son’s bedroom, the phone number for Ziv is my house phone, and we’ve retained that modest, direct feeling," Eisenberger said. "It’s a very lean machine, and that’s something very attractive to donors today."
Draiman, a philanthropic consultant based in Jerusalem, says "Ziv is synonymous with Danny." And that while the organization has given away more than $1 million a year for the last four years — $1.4 million last year — "in order to continue we would have to hire more staff and set up an office, and then we just wouldn’t be Ziv anymore."
One trend Draiman has seen is for family foundations to set up their own tzedakah funds, often asking Siegel to advise them.
Draiman says he has always looked for that special person with a big heart and worthy cause. "When people call and want to tell me about a great project, that doesn’t interest me so much," Draiman said. "But when they say ‘let me tell you about a great person,’ my ears perk up."
Part of it reflects "commitment and passion," he said, adding: "You can be a part-time mitzvah hero, too, like the woman here who feeds seven families a month."
Three Simple Words
Why not hand off Ziv to the next Danny Siegel?
He’s thought a lot about it, Siegel says. "I could turn it over to someone but then it wouldn’t be Ziv. So the die is cast and it was the right decision," he says. "I won’t be forced to do it a different way, and I have absolutely no second thoughts."
Most who know him and his work say he himself is a mitzvah hero, but he prefers to describe himself as "a shadchan" [matchmaker] who was able to connect "authentic people" who wanted to give with "authentic people" doing extraordinary works of kindness.
Along the way he has made available a tzedakah curriculum for schools, organized mitzvah heroes conferences and tours in Israel and the U.S. to visit people like "the shoe woman" in Denver who gives away extra retail shoes or the woman in Florida who designs hats for women losing their hair as a result of cancer therapy.
What has driven Siegel all these years?
He recalls that on his first mitzvah trip to Israel he met Hadassah Levy, who takes in children with Down’s syndrome. "I asked her why she did it, and she said, ‘they were babies.’ Those three words knocked me over," he says.
"I just want to be a good person."