Performing mitzvahs is easier than you think

Visiting scholar spends time at Congregation Neve Shalom

Staff Writer


Staff Writer

METUCHEN — The English definition of the Hebrew word mitzvah is to do good things for other people.

Since 1981, Danny Siegel’s nonprofit mitzvah organization, the Ziv Tzedakah Fund (Radiance Charitable Foundation) has documented the good works of the famous and nonfamous while distributing more than $5 million dollars to worthy individuals and projects.

Siegel, a prolific poet and author, who has written 25 books, spent last weekend as the scholar-in-residence at Congregation Neve Shalom. On Friday, his lecture was titled "What Do Bruce Springsteen, Steven Spielberg, Paul Newman, David Copperfield, Ben & Jerry, and Liz Taylor Know About Mitzvahs That We Don’t?"

Siegel’s easy-going, humorous style hearkened back to the Jewish monologists of the 1950s in general and Sam Levinson in particular.

"Sam was my hero," said Siegel. "It’s from him that I learned the importance of using humor when I speak to groups of people. Sometimes, the stories get a little heavy, and humor helps to offset that."

The purpose of Friday night’s lecture was twofold: to get the word out on the work of some mitzvah heroes and to inspire people to become mitzvah heroes themselves.

"Jewish people are required to do mitzvahs," he said. "In Jewish tradition, God has instructed us to help others."

Siegel doesn’t use guilt as a motivating force.

"I got two people to pledge to buy $50 worth of magnifying glasses so that people with failing eyesight can read the prayer books," he said. "I didn’t make a big deal out of it. I just snuck the request in the middle of the lecture and two hands went up."

Siegel’s involvement in the world of mitzvahs began in 1975 on the eve of a journey to Israel.

"Whenever anyone would take a trip to Israel, friends and family would give them a couple of dollars to give to a good cause," he said. "So before I left, I decided to ask people. I wound up with $955."

Once in Israel, Siegel found enough individuals and groups there to distribute the money. When he got back to the states, he wrote a detailed report on where the money went for the people who contributed.

Folks were so impressed by Siegel’s work that the next time he traveled to Israel, he had $1,600 with him. By the time of his fifth trip in 1981, he had $12,000 to donate. It was then that his lawyers advised Siegel to form a nonprofit organization and the Ziv Tzedakah Fund was born.

At Neve Shalom on Friday, Siegel mixed humorous stories and asides with serious issues effortlessly.

While lauding Newman, Taylor and Copperfield ("He grew up right here in Metuchen. His last name is Kotkin," he said) for their good work with AIDS patients, critically ill children and patients who have lost the use of their limbs, he threw in the occasional one-liner.

"A Chinese diplomat once said to me, ‘You know what the trouble is with Jewish food? Forty-eight hours later, you’re hungry again,’ " he said.

Needless to say, the audience loved that one.

Siegel is most proud of the fact that his organization is not dependent on huge donations from big companies.

"Our average contribution is $100," he said. "We often get $18 or multiples of that number because in the Jewish religion, 18 means ‘chai’ or ‘life.’ "

Siegel was quick to point out that although he spoke about the work of
famous people, fame had nothing to do with it.

"Everyone has the power to do a mitzvah," he said. "If you’re a songwriter, write songs to make people feel good. If you work at a computer company, get them to donate computers to people who can’t afford them. That’s what a mitzvah hero does."

Siegel was born in Arlington, Va., in 1944, but has strong Jersey roots.

"My mom was born in Highlands and my dad came from Keansburg," he said. "He started his medical practice in Virginia in 1940 but we’d come up and visit family all the time."

So how can a person become a mitzvah hero?

"That’s easy," said Siegel. "Start by making a list of friends who like to do good things for people. Then call them up and do something."

For more information on the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, call (973) 763-9396 or go to