Philanthropist, author, lecturer and plain force of nature Danny Siegel whirled into Athens early in March, landing in the synagogue of Congregation Children of Israel.
He was there March 8 as the sixth speaker brought to Athens for a public talk by the Florence and Sandy Schwartz Symposium Fund. Among other programs, the fund has brought to town an archaeologist excavating an ancient synagogue and has staged a panel discussion with local religious leaders.
“Before I speak, I have a couple of things to say,” Siegel said.
He told the audience he has gotten tired of selling his books — he has written 29½ — so he has started giving them away. Then he walked up and down the aisles, handing out titles such as “Munbaz II and Other Mitzvah Heroes” and “Giving Your Money Away, How Much, How To, Why, Where and To Whom.”
He knows firsthand about giving money away and about persuading others to do so. From 1981 until 2008, Siegel founded and chaired the Ziv Tzedakah Fund, which distributed more than $13 million worldwide. Knowing where charitable donations are going and how the money will be used is important.
Siegel told stories of mitzvah heroes, people who are doing for others.
One was Nobel Prize-winning physicist Niels Bohr, whose mother was Jewish. He fled Copenhagen and went to nearby Sweden as the Nazis were advancing, but he refused to head for the United States — the government wanted his help with creating a nuclear bomb — until King Gustav agreed to shelter Norway’s 7,000 Jews.
Siegel said Swedish fisherman ferried the refugees across the sea in their boats. He added that the go-between facilitating the meeting between the king and the scientist was actress Greta Garbo.
Siegel talked about tzedakah and tikkun olam, citing the example of Patricia Krause, who brought work from Guatemalan women weavers to the United States and sold it to buyers here. More pieces sold, and more artisans started getting involved.
Now there’s a nonprofit organization, Maya Works, that imports and wholesales handmade items to stores and online merchants, including colorful kippot and beautiful prayer shawls.
The nonprofit has helped transform entire communities by offering artisans literacy classes and technical training as well as fair wages. Siegel brought both kippot and tallisim to show and sell.
In the face of a confusing world, people may feel helpless, convinced there’s nothing they can do to make a difference. Nonsense, Siegel said.
After the World Trade Center fell, Siegel immediately started collecting money to help survivors and first responders. He said that doing mitzvot means you can do something because something isn’t nothing.
What kind of something?
He challenged the audience to make arrangements to collect and distribute leftover food from University of Georgia football games. Homeless shelters and people in need have benefited from hundreds of pounds of food rescued from other sporting events around the country.
“Doing mitzvahs gives meaning to our lives,” Siegel said. “Doing mitzvahs helps set priorities. I go to sleep thinking of a mitzvah I’m going to do tomorrow.”