New Jersey rabbi's new role begins where free trips to Israel leave off
Rabbi Daniel Brenner has been named vice president of education at birthright israel.
by Johanna Ginsberg
NJJN Staff Writer
As head of interfaith programming for a Presbyterian seminary, Rabbi Daniel Brenner was often on the receiving end of jibes of the "What's a nice Jewish boy like you¦" variety.
And yet, so comfortable had he grown at Manhattan's Auburn Theological Seminary, he acknowledged, that he had to be asked twice before considering a position as vice president of education at Taglit-birthright israel.
"The first time I said, â€˜Look I can't do this. I'm deeply immersed in my work at Auburn," said Brenner, a resident of Montclair.
But that was before Israel's war with Lebanon last summer. After the war, when Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, his former mentor at CLAL — The Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, made the second call, Brenner's internal focus has shifted to Israel, where he has family.
"The war got me thinking," said Brenner. "I really want to be part of that dream. I want to stand in solidarity with my family in Israel. Birthright israel is one way American Jews can have the opportunity to stand in solidarity with Israel."
He also began thinking about the Jews he was interacting with through his work at Auburn.
"I did a lot of work with Jews in the context of Muslims and Christians," he said. "Young Jews are trying to carve out their Jewish identities. And they are not finding their places in the Jewish world but somewhere else."
Birthright israel would enable him to access a generation of unaffiliated Jews and help them to connect. "Oh, yeah, this is why I became a rabbi," he remembers thinking to himself as he attended his first birthright israel board meeting.
Brenner begins his new position June 1 and will focus on programs for birthright israel alumni. The program offers free or heavily subsidized trips to Israel for young Jews who have not been there previously on organized tours.
Administrators at the birthright israel Foundation were thrilled with the new appointment. "Rabbi Brenner brings a glowing sense of Jewish excitement to whatever he touches," said foundation president Jay Golan. "He has a broad range of Jewish experience and great respect in dealing with people across the spectrum, whether politically from right to left, or denominationally from Chabad to Reform. He finds commonalities and bridges the gaps in an unusual way."
"For me, it's all about this generation," Brenner said. "How has the Jewish world changed and how are these young people, 18 to 26, seeing the world? How do they do Jewish when they return from these trips?"
Brenner has already crafted his vision for how they might want to "do Jewish." It begins with involving the alumni themselves — 15, to be exact: young professionals from cities across North America — who have already said they want to be more involved.
They will spend three weeks this summer at a retreat in Israel, brainstorming about how to reach the 30,000 young people who go on birthright israel trips every year. The list already includes gatherings like retreats, Shabbatons, and social circles based on common interests, as well as such organized activities as a national day of service learning or a national initiative to celebrate Hanukka.
"I don't want cookie-cutter programs, but options," he said. "I hope as a result of my work, we'll see a flowering of a new generation getting involved in Jewish life."
Birthright israel already offers some post-trip programming, but at a level its founders and leaders consider patchwork at best. Administrators anticipate that Brenner will ramp up the effort.
"Daniel will turn his attention to making sure the vast majority of recent alumni get invited to something within six to eight weeks of their return," said Golan. "Being contacted quickly and with something exciting is a huge logistical piece we are not doing, or only doing on a patchwork basisâ€¦. Daniel will move to develop national curricula and programs that can travel to wherever people need them, whenever they want them."
Brenner, who serves as part-time rabbi at the String of Pearls, a Reconstructionist synagogue in Princeton, is also a published author and playwright. In 2001, he was named one of the upcoming generation's "best and brightest" by the New York Jewish Week. At that time, he was serving as senior teaching fellow at CLAL- The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. As director of Auburn's Center for Multifaith Education, he applied CLAL's pioneering work in promoting pluralism among Jews to programs involving Christians, Muslims, and Jews. In the aftermath of 9/11, Brenner created programs that he hoped would transcend prejudice and social divisions and build a renewed sense of civic cooperation among the faiths.
Brenner has no illusions about the challenges he faces in his new role, but he's looking forward to meeting them head on. Many birthright israel participants have not become b'nei mitzva — 20 to 30 percent, according to the organization. About 60 percent are unaffiliated or very marginally affiliated.
"This is a group I love to work with because they ask really tough questions. There are no assumptions with this group," he said. "You really have to be absolutely clear about why someone should like to be Jewish. Birthright israel reaches young people at a stage of intense questioning. The Jewish community must step up and speak to them."
Brenner expects to travel back and forth to Israel often, which would make finding time on the pulpit difficult. He will step down from the pulpit at String of Pearls, a decision over which he said, "I'm heartbroken, but I'll have to focus all my energy working with birthright."
Brenner also expects to bring a certain level of intensity to his work.
"I have 100,000 alumni to serve," he said.
But one thing he'll always have time for is writing. Brenner is a frequent contributor to Jewish and religion publications, and his fifth professionally produced play, Driving School of America, premiered at New York's Vital Theater in 2004. "I could never stop writing," he said. "In my heart, I'm a writer. I write for my mental health and my sanity."
What he's most looking forward to is learning about his new constituency. "This will give me an incredible window into the lives of American Jews as they live and not just the core Jews who are raised in our institutions."