The new executive director of Hillel at Temple University, Daniel Levitt, 33, grew up in New Jersey, but has served as director of Hillel and the Jewish Learning Initiative on Campus (JLIC) judaic educator at the University of Guelph in Ontario since 2012. Before that he was campus rabbi of Vanderbilt University Hillel. He got his semicha (ordination) Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in 2010 after graduating in 2005 from SUNY Binghamton (BA).
I met Levitt on a bus in Israel, heading south to the desert where we were part of a new campus initiative called Israel Engaged Campus. Temple is one of five schools selected to participate in this pilot program, whose mission is to educate college students about the State of Israel, its culture, history, art, science and technology.
“I don’t want Israel to be the only point of entry for Jewish students,” Levitt said when we talked previously. “In Hillel my job isn’t to sell one option or one way to be Jewish, but to have a broad and diverse marketplace of ideas and opinions.”
It was during his undergraduate years at Binghamton where Levitt claims he began to engage in critical thinking and learned the value of questioning one’s assumptions and deeply held beliefs:
I came to college with a very specific worldview. I felt very strongly about my religious beliefs. I came to realize, after intense study, that no question about belief, about faith, has to be scary.
Levitt sees his role at Hillel as providing a way to “nudge students in a direction of less certainty and more questioning”:
I never thought it was possible to question the existence of God. But college taught me there is equal value in alternative perspectives. If you don’t accept that possibility then you don’t have the ability to learn from others and learn humility.
The word “humility” came up many times during our conversations. Although Levitt identifies as Modern Orthodox, he is exceptionally open to new ideas, new interpretations and new ways to find one’s own way to be Jewish:
Jewishness, that is, Jews considered as a culture, a tradition, a people, is far larger than Judaism, the religion. In fact, the religious aspect of Judaism can often serve as a barrier to students joining Hillel and becoming involved.
Our mission is to develop young Jewish adults to take leadership roles in their communities. Hillel is a community that wants the involvement of Jewish students, no matter their Jewish background. There is no dogma here.
Levitt shared an anecdote about a former student who grew up with a Conservative rabbi and identified as an atheist, but enjoyed the traditions of Judaism like going to synagogue on the High Holidays like Rosh Hashanah. After studying with Levitt and getting to know him at Hillel, the student realized that the rabbi at his hometown was his “parents’ rabbi.” And even though the student was not modern Orthodox or even particularly religious, he embraced Levitt as his rabbi and as a role model.
It is not surprising. When I first met Levitt I would want to embrace him, or shake his hand, but as a Modern Orthodox Jew, he told me he refrained from such intimacies with women other than his wife, Naomi. However, in conversations we had and at the table of our Israel Engaged Campus meetings, Levitt’s voice was always a moderate, reasonable, but impassioned one. Levitt brings a rich intellectual background to Temple campus, but he also brings a humanistic spirit infused with critical inquiry and marked by humility.
Levitt said, without hesitation, that his parents have been his greatest influences in life: “They modeled an engaged religious Jewish life that prioritized Jewish values along with Jewish observance.”
Levitt also said his wife Naomi, a nurse, has taught him kindness, patience and to try to greet everyone with a smile. The two have three children: Yonah, 5; Leah, 3; and the baby Atira, 1. Another influence is his mentor at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, Rabbi Avi Weiss. Levitt said that unlike himself, Weiss was the master of pithy statements that did not undermine the complexity of Jewish thought.
The famous Jewish religious leader, Hillel, is known for standing on one leg and summarizing all of Judaism to a Roman challenger: “That which is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the whole Torah; the rest is the explanation; go and learn.”
When I posed this same question to Levitt — stand on one leg and tell me what is Judaism to you — he was characteristically sincere, long-winded, intellectual and moderate: “I don’t have that gift of the sound-bite that my mentor Rabbi Weiss has.”
No matter: Levitt brings his own style, humor and intellect to Temple’s Hillel. It is marked by a thoughtfulness and depth of thought and yes, humility, well beyond his years.
With his new life here in Philadelphia, Levitt sums up his goals:
For me, I want to be the catalyst for students’ own personal growth. I don’t want to hand them Judaism on a silver platter. They should be challenged and supported at Temple Hillel. I want them to feel confident in the choices they’ve made. Students have to remember that Judaism is not monolithic: We’re a diverse, open community.