Enlarging the tent

Enlarging the tent

New head of Golda Och Academy in West Orange talks about his (very north Jersey) life

Rabbi Daniel Nevins
Rabbi Daniel Nevins

There’s a way in which the word “rabbi” is pretty vague.

An American rabbi is a Jewish leader, that part’s clear, but that leadership can be exerted in a variety of ways. An American rabbi can be a preacher, a teacher, a scholar, or an administrator, among many other roles.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins is entering on the third distinct part of a career that so far has been divided in 13-ish year chunks. He’s been a pulpit rabbi, he’s been a scholar and the dean of the rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and now he’s going to shape the education of pre-kindergarteners through high school seniors as he leads the Golda Och Academy in West Orange.

He comes to those positions with an unusually thorough insider’s understanding of the Jewish world. He’s been a member of a Reform synagogue and he’s been educated at Orthodox institutions; he was ordained by the Conservative movement and now he heads one of the movement’s biggest day schools. Or, as he puts it, “I have had positive formative experiences in Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox Judaism.”

On the other hand, his career — and really his life — have been directed by some very firm guidelines; his belief in the Jewish people, with all that entails, and his understanding that the moral values underlying the Jewish world view demand fairness, social justice, and a push for human rights.

Oh, and there’s another through line in his life. He’s deeply a Jersey boy. North Jersey, in fact. His pulpit was in suburban Detroit and his JTS career took him to Manhattan, but he grew up in River Vale, he went to school in Paramus, and now he’s back in West Orange. 

So, meet Rabbi Nevins.

Rabbi Daniel Nevins. (Golda Och Academy)

Danny Nevins was born in 1966, to a family with longstanding ties to north Jersey. His father, Michael Nevins, a retired internist, was born in Newark and grew up in the Bronx; his mother, Phyllis Brower Nevins, who was a calligrapher and died in 2005, was from Teaneck. “My grandfather, Irving Brower, owned a curtain shop in Hackensack,” Rabbi Nevins said. “He was a real Zionist, a real believer in Jewish peoplehood.” Irving’s mother and his two sisters went to Palestine as he and his father came to America, so his connection to the country was not only spiritual and theoretical but also literally familial. (In a weird connection to today’s pandemic, Irving Brower’s father, Moshe Brower, died in the pandemic of 1918.)

Irving Brower was one of the founders and first presidents of Congregation Beth Sholom in Teaneck, which today is one of the Conservative movement’s crowning achievements; the sort of ur-Conservative shuls that others yearn to be.

When they moved to River Vale in the early 1970s, the family — including his older sister, Andrea, who lives in Rockland County now, and his younger brother, Ted, who’s in Tenafly — joined Temple Beth Or in Washington Township. Rabbi Nevins remembers it fondly. “It was a nice place,” he said. “My parents joined the chavurah there, and they made some incredible friends.” 

Rabbi Nevins looks at 1976, when the United States celebrated its bicentennial, as a pinnacle of that part of his life. “It was the high-water mark of our identity as an all-American family,” he said. “My mother got involved in the River Vale town bicentennial committee, and there was the reenactment of a Revolutionary War battle. She learned to cook with molasses.

“And then, in 1977, more of our roots came out.” The Nevins family never stopped being fully and proudly American, but they began to realize that being fully American did not mean not being fully Jewish.

The family — particularly Danny and his mother — began to have “a whole Jewish renaissance,” Rabbi Nevins recalled. When he approached bar mitzvah age, his parents decided to have him mark it at the Kotel in Jerusalem. Because it was a weekday, and so he’d be wearing tefillin, Danny had to find someone in Monsey to teach him how to put them on. It was not a tradition that anyone at Beth Or followed. That someone was Rabbi Dovid Katzenstein of Yeshiva Shaarei Torah, where Danny Nevins studied on Sundays.

“My father started researching genealogy, and my mother and I started studying Jewish ritual, Jewish food, and researching synagogues,” he said. “It felt like we stepped into another room of our identity. That didn’t make me any less American, but it did allow us to reclaim something else as well.”

ocially distanced, masked GOA middle-school students daven on an autumnal rosh chodesh during the pandemic.

Soon the Nevins left Beth Or and joined Temple Emanuel, the Conservative synagogue then in Westwood and now in Woodcliff Lake. Its leader was the formidable Rabbi Andre Ungar, who played a key part in Rabbi Nevins’ growth.

He was not the only kid to grow up under Rabbi Ungar’s influence to become a Jewish leader, Rabbi Nevins said. Dr. Benjamin Sommer, the theologian who is a professor of Bible at JTS, and Dr. Alyssa Gray, the attorney and talmudist who chairs the rabbinics department at HUC, were just a few years ahead of him. But when he was in 11th grade, he was the only teenager who went to services regularly. “So when the bar mitzvah kid would receive a gift from the president and the men’s club and the sisterhood, USY was supposed to give a little certificate too. I wasn’t a member of USY, but I was the only teenager there, so I would give a little speech. 

“As time went on, I started elaborating more and more. I thought that as long as I was up there, I might as well give a little d’var Torah.”

Rabbi Ungar was punctilious about time. “You could set your watch by him,” Rabbi Nevins said. “I was supposed to talk about 20 seconds, and it probably was more like two minutes” — it doesn’t sound like much, but all those seconds were carefully allocated — “and he was nothing but encouraging.

“He also got some nachas from it,” he continued. “And that’s when I got used to speaking from the bimah.”

More generally, “Rabbi Ungar represented an unusual combination of erudition, kindness, and passionate engagement with the issues of the day. In my mind, to this day he is the model of what a rabbi can be in a community.”

Danny Nevins stands between his proud parents, Michael and Phyllis, as he graduates from Harvard College in 1989. (Rabbi Danny Nevins)

Andre Ungar and his wife, Judy, “who has a huge personality — I remember that when she was asked why she didn’t wear a hat, she said ‘I would think that what’s in my head would be more important than what’s on it’ — effortlessly modeled egalitarianism at a time when it was not mainstream. Even though I was very drawn to Orthodoxy for many reasons, I always felt with crystal clarity that gender equality had to be central to my Jewish identity. I credit Andre and Judy Ungar with that.”

Rabbi Ungar also encouraged the Nevins family to go to the then-Soviet Union. His parents became very active in the movement to free Soviet Jews; as a result, “we went to Leningrad and Moscow in 1986, and we visited refuseniks,” he said. “That was another very important part of my Jewish education, being an activist for Soviet Jewry. Andre Ungar spoke passionately, week after week, about our obligation to protect our sisters and brothers behind the Iron Curtain.”

It was around that time that Danny Nevins started going to Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. It’s also around the time when he switched from public school to the Frisch School, the Orthodox yeshiva in Paramus. He’d thought of continuing at Shaarei Torah, but “it wasn’t college preparatory, and I was definitely destined for college. That’s how we discovered Frisch.

“My life then was like a split screen, Ramah and Frisch, Conservative and Orthodox,” he continued.

“Frisch had a good mechina” – preparatory — “program, and I had some knowledge that my Moriah- and Yavneh-trained classmates didn’t have. They knew Bible stories better than I did, and I knew Greek mythology better than they did. I threw myself into the project of learning Talmud, and I found that I had both a passion and a talent for it.”

After he graduated from Frisch, he went to Yeshivat HaMivtar in Jerusalem for his gap year. 

“I loved it,” he said. “I was a bit of a soul on fire. I would go to my rabbis and ask ‘Why are you doing this?’ to each one of them, and each one would give me a different answer. Their answers were compelling for them, but none of them were going to be my answer.

GOA teachers found creative ways to teach in person, within the strictures posed by covid, during the 2020-21 school year. (Golda Och Academy)

“One of them said ‘Because my father and grandfather did, and what was good enough for them is good enough for me.’ Another one gave me a chasidic answer: ‘You have to step inside the fire to feel the heat.’

“I had very good friends who were girls at Michlelet Bruria,” the girls’ school that like his was founded by Rabbi Chaim Brovender. “Their Talmudic skills were as good as the men’s, and I wondered how come I could become a rabbi and they couldn’t. The gender dynamic always bothered me. I worried how we could afford not to have these women’s leadership skills.”

From Israel, Rabbi Nevins went to Brandeis. After a year, he transferred to Harvard, where at first he was active in the Orthodox minyan at Hillel. 

“I was looking for critical openness,” he said. “I studied history at Harvard, where so much of the focus is on context. Where does an idea come from? It seemed like I was bifurcated. On the Jewish side of my identity, it was timeless. It was from Sinai. On the other side, everything was evolving. I was looking for a more integrated model, where the best modern values, like human rights, could be integrated, and the Jewish values could be lifted up.

“By my junior year, I went to the egalitarian minyan. That is where I met my people. Some of my lifelong friends were at that minyan, and I found that I could have it all. Full davening, a full Torah reading every Shabbat morning, and also people who were integrating what they were learning in history and literature and science and philosophy into their Jewish learning. It all was coming together in a powerful way. And those same friends were volunteering at the homeless shelter in Harvard Square. 

“I really found my direction there.”

An upper-school GOA student works on a STEM project. (Golda Och Academy)

As his senior year at Harvard began, Danny Nevins had to decide what to do next. Rabbinical school or a doctoral program? “I tried to write the application for the Ph.D. program at Princeton,” he said. “There was a one-page essay that was supposed to be a statement of purpose that you had to write, and I couldn’t write it.

“And then I applied to JTS. There were five essays that I had to write, and they wrote themselves. One was a spiritual autobiography; another was your vision for 10 years from now. And I said to myself that this is telling me something.”

So, in the fall of 1989, he began rabbinical school. “It was wonderful for me,” he said. “It was like gan Eden.” The garden of Eden. “It had the best scholars, a passion for integrating critical scholarship with faith, and a social justice agenda.” He also got married, to Lynn Scheele, in 1990.

After he was ordained at JTS, “I began my career as an assistant rabbi at a giant synagogue in Farmington Hills,” in suburban Detroit, he said.  At Adat Shalom Synagogue, Rabbi Nevins started as assistant rabbi; after five years, in 2000, he became its senior rabbi. By then he and Lynn had three children. “They all went to nursery school there, and continued to the day school.” That was the Hillel Day School, which was affiliated with the Schechter movement then and now is an independent community school. “I helped found the Jewish high school there that’s now called the Frankel Jewish Academy,” he said. “Our kids had a great day school experience. When we left Detroit in 2007, they all switched to Heschel” — that’s the Abraham Joshua Heschel School, at the very southern end of the Upper West Side — “and they all graduated from there. We have been very blessed by that experience, by the integrative project of being fully engaged as Jews with our Torah and our community, fully trained in arts and sciences and athletics and the social challenges of our time.”

Back in Farmington Hills, the Nevins family was comfortably ensconced in their community and their lives. But Rabbi Nevins’ mother, Phyllis, died in 2005, and that made him think about his distance from his family. Just a little later, in 2006, “JTS was going through a transition,” he said. “My teacher and mentor, Bill Lebeau, announced his retirement.” William Lebeau had been dean of the rabbinical school. 

In 2006, the Conservative movement’s Committee on Law and Standards, which included Rabbi Nevins, voted on whether to accept gay men and lesbians as rabbinical students. Rabbi Nevins joined Rabbi Elliot Dorff and Rabbi Avram Reisner in the responsum that the committee adopted; although it was not the most liberal of the responsa that the committee members offered, it was the most liberal to garner enough support to gain majority acceptance. (Conservative halacha has liberalized since then.) “That was at the same time that I was interviewing for the job as dean, and I was a little worried that it would make me radioactive,” Rabbi Nevins said. “But it seemed that the seminary wanted someone who was willing to take a stand, and they offered me the job.” That was in 2007.

Lower school kids benefit from the West Orange school’s garden. (Golda Och Academy)

He stayed there for 14 years. “It was great,” he said. “I grew as a scholar, as a teacher, and as a person during my time at JTS. I loved working with young adults — and some of them not so young — and helping them see visions of themselves as Jewish leaders. Helping them prepare for five years.”

He remained on the law committee, and that allowed him to do research in the areas that intrigued him. “As a scholar, I started writing a lot of responsa,” he said. Among many other subjects, “I wrote on bioethics; I wrote a paper on the use of electricity on Shabbat, and on lab-grown meat.

“I was interested in connecting ancient wisdom to contemporary challenges, so I dealt with disability in Jewish law, specifically about blind Jews and on brain death, and more recently on triage during the pandemic.”

But everything ends. “I am one of those people who believes that change is good for a person, and for an organization. New leadership will be good for the school, and I am forced to reinvent myself.

“I considered going back to the pulpit, but this job” — at Golda Och — “opened up. I can do foundation work here” — that’s as in building, not as in fund-raising, although of course that’s always part of the job.

“A lot of what was the basis of Jewish identity for earlier generations is weaker now,” he continued. “It’s gotten shaky. We don’t have the nostalgia for the immigrant experience. We don’t have the Holocaust in the same way.” As it steadily recedes from living memory, it’s still potent but “it’s not as formative for young Jews as it used to be. And the foundation of the state of Israel isn’t as strong a basis either. I was raised with all that – but I think that now the case for Jewish peoplehood isn’t as obvious as it was then.

High school students interviewed and filmed three heroic Holocaust through the Names, Not Numbers Holocaust documentary film project. (Golda Och Academy)

“The outside world is more open to us, which is both an opportunity and a challenge. And the culture has been evolving so rapidly around us. All of the resources we need are within Judaism, to connect to a culture that values diversity, equity, and inclusion. I’ve made inclusion a big focus of my work. I believe in making a bigger tent.”

He quotes Isaiah 52:2; as the Jewish Publication Society translation puts it:

“Enlarge the size of  your tent,

Extend the size of your dwelling, 

Do not stint!

Lengthen the ropes, and drive the pegs firm.”

“This is my vision,” Rabbi Nevins said. “To enlarge the tent.

“To revitalize Jewish life, where people of all generations find inspiration and challenge and comfort and joy.”

Despite covid, the senior class was able to make its traditional trip to Israel this spring. (Golda Och Academy)

The Golda Och Academy is part of the Solomon Schechter day school movement. It draws from throughout MetroWest for its preschool and elementary school, and from throughout Northern New Jersey for its high school, because it’s the only Conservative high school on the west side of the Hudson for many counties north and south.

Some of its high school students come from the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, which ends at eighth grade. Rabbi Nevins and Steve Freeman, the head of school at SSDS, are friends and colleagues. Like Rabbi Nevins, Mr. Freeman moved to New Jersey from suburban Detroit. The Bergen County school is “our partner in the K-8 world, and we are a resource to them for high school,” Rabbi Nevins said. “We want to show them that we are an outstanding option for high school for Bergen County kids.”

As for GOA, “this school has a remarkable history and faculty,” Rabbi Nevins said. Pointing to a thick notebook, he added, “I spent two months having one-on-one meetings with our teachers and staff.” The notebook holds his notes from those meetings. “I had 130 interviews. I wanted to hear their stories; what they love about the school, their visions for it, and their dreams.

“It is a remarkable group of educators. And although I am a rabbi, I am equally invested in their art, language, history, math and science curricula. And I spoke with math and science teachers who are eager to strengthen the school’s spiritual life.

“The teachers see how the children respect the school’s spiritual life; how they engage in prayer, if they are internalizing the school’s moral values. This school is about character education as much as it is about academic knowledge.

“I want students to be strong mind, body, and spirit.”

One other thing. His drums.

The Nevins family loves the outdoors. Here, from left, are Talya, Lynn, Danny, Leora, and Sam. (Rabbi Danny Nevins)

As you walk into his office, you see a drum set; he’s had those drums in each of his offices. “I have a memory of going to a Memorial Day parade when I was in second grade, and feeling the drums before I could see them,” he said. “It must have been a snare drum that was vibrating in my tummy. I really wanted to play drums.

“My mother, who was saintly, made me try piano first. I played it for a year, in third grade, but I was terrible, and I really didn’t like it. So in fourth grade, I started taking drum lessons.” He played in bands throughout high school and college. “I don’t present myself as a proficient drummer, but it brings me joy,” he said. “It is relaxing. It is expressive. It gets people moving.

“Just yesterday, one of my colleagues brought her 3-year-old son to work, and I played some simple rhythms on a conga drum with him. It was an immediate connection.

“I’ve done drum circles. When I was at Frisch, every rosh chodesh we would have a chagigah and I would play drums.

“I don’t know what it will be like here, but I want there to be more music in the air.”

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