Daniel Levitt Wants Temple Hillel Students to Lead Themselves


Temple University has a new rabbi and executive director for its Hillel – Daniel Levitt.

As soon as Rabbi Daniel Levitt and his wife Naomi started telling friends they’d be coming to Philadelphia — where he would be taking over as rabbi and executive director of Temple Hillel — they kept hearing the same thing: “Everyone we mentioned it to began by saying, ‘Oh, I love Philadelphia,’ ” said the 33-year-old Levitt, who arrived here three weeks ago after spending a couple of years running the Hillel in remote Guelph, Ontario, an hour outside Toronto. “Then they’d start talking about who they knew here.
“This is what we were looking for.  My wife was tired of being isolated and we felt it was time to get our kids in Jewish school, make Jewish friends, get closer to family. In Guelph, there wasn’t a synagogue and no contemporaries. You had to go to Toronto to find kosher food.
“This seems like a good match so far.”
 So this life-long diehard Giants fan from West Orange, N.J., now finds himself in Eagles country, where one of his goals is to teach his 5-year-old son, Yonah — along with daughters Leah, 3, and Atira, 1, — not to root for the home team. Otherwise, he’s ready to take on the challenge of making Hillel at Temple a place where students can celebrate their Jewish identity, regardless of their affiliation.
“I’m an Orthodox rabbi, but a rabbi for all Jews,” said Levitt, who graduated from Yeshivat Chevovai Torah rabbinical school in New York, then spent two years In Nashville as an assistant rabbi, while also working for Hillel at Vanderbilt.
“I really believe very much in how Hillel works,” he continued. “Part of Hillel’s message is to inspire Jewish leaders. I believe in getting the students to take ownership and leadership of their Jewish community — to encourage them to think about what being Jewish means to them. They need to figure out who they want to be. I love being a Jewish educator, but my goal is to educate, not to convince anyone to one perspective.”
That kind of mindset won over the search committee, headed by Rabbi Howard Alpert, CEO for Hillel of Greater Philadelphia, which encompasses all area campuses. “I think Rabbi Levitt has a deep, traditional love for Jews and Jewish students and a concern for the future of the Jewish people,” said Alpert, who has been in his position for 30 years. “I met with the students when this began. They were deeply involved in the process.
Uniformly, across the board, they said they were looking for someone who could relate with them. That’s what Rabbi Levitt brings to the table. Being younger, he can relate to them being at that stage of life without being judgmental.
“We had a strong number of candidates. But it was an easy decision, because Rabbi Levitt was so well prepared.”
Levitt replaced Temple Hillel’s former executive director, Phil Nordlinger, who left this past spring to become the director of administration at The Jewish Center in Princeton, N.J.
While he’s just getting settled in, Levitt does have a game plan to make Temple Hillel a place where students can feel free to express themselves, regardless of their viewpoints. “There are similarities at all Hillels — and also differences,” explained Levitt, who’s living in Lower Merion so that his son can attend Yeshiva Lab School. “What I’ve already noticed here is a tremendous support network and staff. The students really love their community. They feel empowered and motivated, which gives the place good energy.”
The path that brought Levitt from West Orange to Philly wasn’t one he imagined. While he graduated with a degree in Judaic Studies from SUNY Binghamton, it wasn’t until later he decided this would be the direction he would go.
“I was driving home planning the rest of my life,” recalled Levitt, youngest of four children. “It occurred to me I liked the Judaic stuff and was passionate about it, so maybe I should get some experience with that. I took a position as assistant youth director at the JCC in Monmouth and worked there for a year. I realized I did like it and enjoyed communal work, but I wanted to do something more engaging and intellectual.”
One of the first things he did upon arriving at Temple was meet with students to find out if the 2014 incident on campus where a Palestinian non-student sympathizer physically attacked a Jewish student was an isolated incident or a symptom of a larger problem. “The campus is a safe place,” insisted Levitt. “I met with school officials and the police and we talked about what’s in place to protect all students.
“What happened last year was a fluke. What everyone from the outside looking in thinks is happening on campus doesn’t necessarily reflect the experience for the Jewish student.”
At Temple Hillel, Levitt will need to balance his time between fundraising and working with his staff and the students. He says it’s important for students take advantage of an opportunity they likely won’t encounter anywhere else.
“This is the only place in the Jewish world where all pluralism exists,” said Levitt, who said his biggest issues living in Canada were dealing with an antiquated cell phone and Internet plan, which caused his bills to skyrocket. “Here we have Jews of all denominations who are really part of the same community. They pray separately; some keep kosher, some don’t; some are more interested in Judaism, some more in Israel. But everyone is part of the same community. That doesn’t exist to my knowledge on campus anywhere as much as it does with Hillel, which makes this a unique experience.”
So here he is at Temple, ready to fly like an Owl. Just not like an Eagle.
Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729.


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