Mitzvah maven Danny Siegel ready to raid Dumpsters

Danny Siegel is coming to town. Retailers beware.

He'll be doing some Dumpster dipping. If he sees that you're throwing out quantities of usable food, you might get nagged about donating leftovers. You might also get a copy of The New Federal Food Donation Law and information on where to take your food.

"I Dumpster-dip all over the place," says Siegel, who takes locals along on his garbage-bin forays for day-old cookies, bread, discarded shoes. Siegel hasn't been in the Bay Area for a while and is looking forward to checking the Dumpsters that yielded his past successes.

The Pied Piper of tzedakah, Siegel will kick off Temple Isaiah's third annual Mitzvah Day on Wednesday, September 24. His lecture at the Lafayette synagogue, co-sponsored by the Volunteer Action Center and Young Jewish Alliance of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, is one of several Bay Area appearances.

A Rockville, Md.-based poet, author and lecturer, Siegel, 53, is also is the founder and administrator of Ziv Tzedakah Fund Inc., which gave away $296,000 last year. Excluding Shabbat and holidays, that's $1,000 a day.

He's also a wealth of information about mitzvah and tzedakah projects throughout the United States, and Israel. Siegel speaks all over the United States inspiring audiences with videos and stories of mitzvah heroes, people who make a difference.

"He's incredibly inspiring not only because of his engaging personality but because of what he brings by way of example of what real people do in the way of mitzvot," says Rabbi Judy Shanks of Temple Isaiah.

Siegel has a stable of everyday, real-life mitzvah heroes young and old with projects ranging from the ordinary to the unusual. There's young Elana Erdstein from Detroit, who requested and received for her bat mitzvah 25,000 hotel-size soaps, shampoos and conditioners to be given to the poor. Or a group of kids from Omaha who design, make and sell greeting cards. The profits go to Ziv Tzedakah.

Then there's John Beltzer, who writes personalized songs for children with cancer.

The Shoe Lady of Denver got her start when she found 500 pairs of new shoes in a Dumpster. The shoes had been discarded by a store. Although threatened with arrest, she reclaimed the shoes in order to donate them. A trained nurse, the Shoe Lady persists in diverting would-be throwaways to charitable purposes.

"No corporation is safe in Denver from the Shoe Lady," says Siegel, who estimates the salvage value of all the merchandise she has handled at $3 million. "She doesn't take a penny for it."

The Shoe Lady introduced Siegel to the joys of examining garbage.

Just ask him about some of the places he and others have hit and he can tell you that in Massachusetts, Pizza Hut has donated 28,000 pounds of food. Dunkin Donuts donated 80 million items in just one year. Mrs. Fields stores used to throw out any cookies that were more than two hours old. They now donate these.

"We'll be launching projects right and left," says Siegel, anticipating his trip to the Bay Area.

He was particularly enthusiastic about the Volunteer Action Center of the East Bay federation, which places volunteers and provides support for mitzvah projects. "The main thrust when I'm with a group is launching projects and showing people with very little effort that they are capable of changing people's lives."

Siegel seeks out and usually finds mitzvah heroes wherever he goes. Among his favorites are the people he calles "giraffes" — because they stick their necks out, taking on a corporation, the government or just taking a risk in order to accomplish a greater good.

But the main message Siegel wants to get across is that everyone can make a difference. Siegel quotes educator John Holt.

"Charismatic leaders make us think: Oh, if only I could do that or be like that. True leaders make us think: If they can do that, then I can too."

Even though he's been an active force on the mitzvah scene for more than two decades, Siegel still has a lengthy agenda. For one thing, he sees more homeless and hungry people now than 20 years ago. He also thinks the Jewish community has progressed too slowly in dealing with alcohol abuse, battered women and AIDS.

But he has seen much progress in serving Jews with special needs.

A short-term goal is to get signs posted in synagogue bathrooms before Yom Kippur with information about battered women's shelters.

Recently Siegel got a grant from Steven Spielberg's Righteous Persons Foundation to write a curriculum on being a mitzvah hero.

He also tracks mitzvah projects throughout the country, which makes him a valuable resource for those thinking of starting new projects.

If someone wants to get a local school to donate leftover food, Siegel will tell them to contact David Levitt. For his bar mitzvah project, Levitt got all 92 public schools in Pinellas County, Fla., to donate their leftover food to shelters.

Herman Berman is the bagel man of Los Angeles. Syd Mandelbaum knows how to get leftovers from rock concerts; and there are others who know how to get leftovers from universities, catered parties, sports stadiums, even Jewish day schools.

Siegel knows who is collecting infant car seats in Seattle or organizing people to drive seniors around in Portland, Maine. There's a synagogue in Cleveland with a bathtub in its entryway for congregants to deposit soap, shampoo and other bath products to be donated to homeless shelters. Another temple has its "mitzvah crib" right in the sanctuary.

"The mitzvah crib is in the sanctuary to tell the people there's a connection between prayer and giving," says Siegel.