It's a no-brainer, really — an easy sell. Ask someone to purchase half-a-dozen inexpensive magnifying glasses to place next to the prayerbooks in shul, and hands go flying up. Mention finding a few individuals to buy houseplants for two or three nursing-home residents — so that they have something to pamper, to watch over, something studies have shown prolongs their lives by 18 months, according to Siegel — and see how many rush to volunteer.
But does that approach work with a much tougher crowd? Can this 63-year-old, who for more than three decades has devoted his energy to eking out fairly modest sums of money — $1,500 for a charity here, $5,000 for one there — reach an age group that stumps parents, educators and religious leaders alike? Does Siegel have an effect on the average 13-year-old?
Sure, he does.
That conclusion was put to the test when Siegel, a resident of Rockville, Md., came to the area to speak to Bar and Bat Mitzvah-aged children about the ways and means of tzedakah. The students are active with UPHIL: Youth Philanthropy in Action, which was started this year to teach about the Jewish obligation of giving back to the community.
Thirty-three UPHIL "fellows" are involved with the program, which requires participants to donate $180 from their Bar and Bat Mitzvah gifts to set up a personal philanthropic account. The $180 is then matched by donor funds, so that each fellow has a total of $360, preferably to be doled out in increments of $36 a year for 10 years. The idea behind this is to establish a pattern of giving and to allow these young humanitarians to become familiar with an array of needs. The Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia and Citizens Bank are partners in the pilot project.
Only five fellows attended the Nov. 4 afternoon event at the Kaiserman JCC, but those who came listened attentively. Siegel discussed some of the work supported by his 26-year-old foundation, Ziv (Hebrew for "radiance"), in Israel.
He spoke, for instance, of using funds to grant a wish for residents in nursing homes, be it a lesson in ballroom dancing or a request for a cup holder attached to a wheelchair. He mentioned leading a llama into a nursing home to distract — in a good way — the seniors for an hour or two. And he described the pressing need for large stuffed dolls, called chibuki in Hebrew (from the root "to hug"), for kids in veritable war zones like Sederot, where rockets from Gaza fall daily. The dolls, said Siegel, provide some comfort at night — or whenever else they are required.
In describing such quirky ways of aiding others, Siegel — a bachelor who's so married to his work that he spends most days traveling across America or to Israel for the sake of making mitzvahs — said that "if we use our brains a little bit, our creativity, we can probably change a lot of people's lives more easily."
That's when he took $2 out of his pocket to offer to anyone who would buy a plant and give it directly to someone in a nursing home.
Twelve-year-old Stephen Rhode accepted the challenge.
"If nothing else happens today," said Siegel, "I feel we've done a lot. We're partners; we're stuck."
Then, he added, shooting a glance at Rhode: "If I meet you in 10 years, we can talk about the plant."
Rhode smiled, and later described Siegel as a "really funny kind of guy. I see things now in a different way."
The Radnor Middle School student, who will celebrate his Bar Mitzvah next month at Main Line Reform, Beth Elohim in Wynnewood, has in the past volunteered with the Friendship Circle, working with children who have disabilities.
"It feels good," he said of the experience. "That's what I live for — to make other people happy."
Rhode was also given a $20 bill from Siegel to go to any charity of the boy's choice; he was thinking of buying canned food for a donation at his school.
Katherine Streitwieser, also 12, replied that she believed the guest speaker "really changed everyone. He's done so much. I think it's cool to go around doing that."
This member of Congregation Kol Ami in Elkins Park and student at Cedarbrook Middle School in Wyncote will become a Bat Mitzvah in March. Already, she has spent considerable time packing and delivering boxes for the Jewish Relief Agency, as well as assisting with the Cook-for-a-Friend program. She also encouraged her family to buy and send a chibuki doll to Israel; it cost about $20.
She noted that "everything small adds up," like pennies in a change jar. "One person may not be able to change the world, but one person can inspire the world."
Siegel went on to clarify that notion: "Money to small causes can change a life. It may be as simple as buying a fancy bottle of shampoo and conditioner, and giving them to a women's shelter. It offers them a sense of dignity, and for what, $12?"
'Use of Human Potential'
All of this must provide a sense of satisfaction to the source of funds matching the $180 contributed by UPHIL fellows: Eric Salmansohn.
Salmansohn, 49, employed by Smith Barney in Philadelphia, understands the value of leveraging dollars and, in this case, using philanthropy as a vehicle to do so.
"This is something bigger than themselves; it offers a sense of vision, idealism and passion," he explained. His daughter, Lia, is in the program, and his older son, Ross, is enmeshed in Jewish life.
The idea for such a model came from his wife, Marcia Bronstein, 48, who just so happens to work for the JCCs of Greater Philadelphia. She noted a void in programming that involves kids in the years after being called to the Torah and before becoming a Confirmand — an age when the young often wander from Judaic practice.
The idea of fostering long-term giving appealed to this communal insider and parent, as it did to her husband.
"It's based on the concept of tzedakah," stated Salmansohn, a member of Adath Jeshurun Congregation in Elkins Park. "The money doesn't have to be in the billions. If everyone does something, we can help the world in our own way. It's about being a responsible participant, about the proper use of human potential."
The couple would like nothing more than for the program to take off and be adopted by Jewish communities nationwide. Salmansohn was willing to match cash for 50 kids this year; he drew in 33.
And what if, next year, students flock to become fellows? What if 200 sign up?
"We'll figure out a solution," he said, contemplating such a possibility. "That's the best problem you could have."
A Sample of Ziv's Work
From its inception in 1981, Ziv has allocated more than $12 million to small causes in America, Israel and around the world. Here is a sampling of what it supports:
A Package From Home: This project was started in 2000 as a way of bolstering the morale of Israeli soldiers. Packages contain toiletries, anti-fungal socks, long underwear, hats and gloves in winter, sunscreen in summer, batteries and snacks. When funds allow, a fleece jacket or blanket is thrown into the mix.
Birthday Angels: The mission here is simple — to give Israeli kids at risk what other kids get: a birthday party. The Birthday Angels Party Kit contains games, stickers and music to help a teacher or other adult facilitate an in-class party, which is customary in Israel.
Tova's Kitchen: On Yosef Caro Street in Jerusalem, Tova Cohen heats up her stove every Wednesday to cook for the poor elderly in her neighborhood.
Jerusalem Rape Crisis Center: Established 25 years ago, this was one of the first organizations in Israel to work with victims of sexual abuse. The center is involved in education, public awareness and outreach.
Bagel Brigade: In southern California, a band of 100 volunteers gathers in the morning to make the rounds of local bakeries and supermarkets, picking up day-old bread and pastries, and delivering them to schools, soup kitchens and shelters. It also purchases cereal in bulk to deliver to poor areas in the San Fernando Valley.
Jewish Appleseed Foundation: This supports struggling Jewish communities in many places, including Hameln, Germany, which was destroyed during the Holocaust. It has enjoyed a renaissance since the 1990s. Funds go to adult education, religious school and summer camp for its budding community of 200 Jews.