Dan Butler’s Tree of Life Never Stops Growing

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No matter how small the Jewish community may be in scope to the rest of the world, it just keeps on growing for Dan Butler.

It never seems to matter where he is or to whom he is speaking. There’s always a connection.
There’s always someone who knows the story of his son, Mikey, who wasn’t supposed to make it out of the hospital after being born with cystic fibrosis, yet lived to 24. Or knew Mikey or someone else who’s a principal part of the story. Or knows a friend of a friend who knew him.
That’s what constantly amazes Dan Butler. No matter how small the Jewish community may be in scope to the rest of the world, it just keeps on growing for him.
On March 30, he was at Congregation B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek in the Northeast as guest speaker for Etz Chaim’s new lecture series in tribute to the late Pittsburgh rabbi, Hirsh Wachs. There were shades of “Jerry Maguire” from the time he began with his virtually nonstop mile-a-minute delivery until he finally came up for air nearly 90 minutes later — he had them at “Hello!”
And when it was over, a number of listeners came up to tell them about their connection to the story — be it from school, or from camp or from a friend who used to visit Mikey in the hospital — or simply because they had been inspired by his words. That gave him a moment to finally reflect.
“The last six months I’ve been everywhere from Glasgow to Phoenix to Boca to Detroit,” said Butler, a Pittsburgh Municipal Court judge who spent that morning in court before hopping in his car for the five-plus hour drive here. “It’s impossible to go see Jews and not know somebody. Today there were two people tonight who knew my son. There’s just so many connections, everywhere I go.”
Among them was the rabbi being memorialized through the lecture series, Hirsh Wachs, who davened at Butler’s synagogue in the Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh — and his son. Rabbi David Wachs, executive director and founder of Etz Chaim, listened to Butler’s personal story, which he interspersed with Hebrew phrases from the Torah and other bits of invaluable information.
That’s precisely the kind of message he wants this lecture series to convey, having it presented at the synagogue where Wachs’ son-in-law, Yehoshua Yeamans, is the new rabbi.
“The idea of Etz Chaim is to communicate the depth and beauty of Judaism to secular Jews,” he explained. “To explain traditional Jewish practice in contemporary, meaningful terms so that the average secular Jew can relate to us, it’s meaningful to his life.”
What Wachs fears is that, somewhere along the way, these men and women got turned off by Judaism. If they’ve drifted away, he hopes to bring them back, not only through this kind of program but also through some of the community outreach Etz Chaim is doing.
That includes extensive outreach to colleges, including Penn State Abington. Following Butler’s address, 18 students received their diplomas for completing its Maimonides program.
Then there’s Etz Chaim’s partnership with the Jewish Women’s Renaissance Project, which later this summer will send 20 local women to Israel.
“It’s like a birthright for women,” said Wachs, who added that the program sent 10 in 2015 and is planning to double that, “but you have to be non-observant and have kids at home.
“We want the mothers to come back with new inspiration to pass it onto their children and husbands. They’ll be mostly in their 30s to 40s, maybe some in their early 50s. They have to be interviewed and accepted. And before they go they have a lot of events and classes to prepare them. When they come back there’s follow-up.
“It’s not just a trip.”
And Butler is not just an ordinary motivational speaker.
The way he connected with the audience, making a bunch of what were essentially strangers feel like close friends, is more than just part of his “act.” Otherwise, how could he have been the one once selected to make the Pittsburgh Steelers’ presentation for the United Way.
As for his breakneck speed delivery, he discovered early on — as regional director for the National Conference of Synagogue Youth — that it was the best way to be heard.
“I do a lot of events for teenagers,” said Butler, who admits he doesn’t know the full origin behind his family name before it was shortened and Americanized. “If you don’t keep their attention — and talk ponderously slow — especially in this digital age, they’ll tune out. I have to talk fast so that the kids will shut each other up. It works. They have to hang onto every word or they miss it.”
The people listening to him at B’nai Israel Ohev Zedek didn’t miss much, hearing someone they could relate to in so many ways.
“I chose that name, [Etz Chaim], because the Torah is the tree of life,” Wachs said. “It gives life. It gives stability. It gives fruits.
“It’s sweet. It’s delicious. Too often, Jews have a negative connotation when they think about Judaism. They have bad memories of religious school and poor education, and it’s a shame because we’re losing so many due to ignorance and apathy. But it’s a beautiful religion if you understand it properly.”

Etz Chaim’s goal is to provide that understanding, offering programs not only at its Elkins Park headquarters, but in Bala Cynwyd and Center City.   The guest lecture series is meant to further enhance that experience and understanding.”

Which is what made Judge Dan Butler the perfect choice.  After all who better than a man whose own personal tree of life only continues to grow?

Contact: jmarks@jewishexponent.com; 215-832-0729

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