Rabbi Dan Smokler, a long-haired, dreadlock-wearing youth turned union organizer turned clean-cut yeshiva student, specializes in embracing and bringing together spheres of life that don’t usually converge.
The educational director of Hillel International’s $10.7 million Senior Jewish Educators Initiative (which he designed and which seeks to engage students through Jewish text study that is relevant to their personal lives and interests) Rabbi Smokler works out of New York University’s Bronfman Center for Jewish Student Life. There he meets one-on-one with students, teaches Torah to a wide range of Jewish affinity groups and mentors Hillel educators around the country.
A native of Ann Arbor, Mich., Smokler majored in art history at Yale (graduating cum laude) and worked for several years organizing Yale employees, hotel workers and writers. The union work (he continues to be pro-labor) has influenced his grass-roots, community-building approach to Jewish education, along with his decision to essentially wear two hats: one at NYU and one at Hillel’s D.C.-based headquarters. “In the labor movement, if you work at the national level, no one local will trust you,” he says. “To have credibility you have to know what it’s like to be on campus and teach students every day.”
Among his innovations at NYU is a 10-week “fellowship” (for a stipend) for people who didn’t have any formal Jewish upbringing. “Birthright gives everyone 10 days in Israel,” he says. “We want to give a 10-week Jewish education. My goal is that when they leave they will have a group of friends, a mentor, and will feel like part of this community.”
Ordained by Rabbi Zalman Nechemia Goldberg of Jerusalem’s (Orthodox) Yeshiva Knesseth Beth Eliezer, Rabbi Smokler identifies as “open Orthodox.” He and his wife, doctoral candidate and Drisha instructor Erin Leib Smokler, are members of the independent minyan Darkhei Noam and the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale.
Since they live on the Upper West Side, membership at the HIR is more symbolic than practical: “As soon as they ordained Sara [Hurwitz] as ‘rabba,’ [a female spiritual leader] we joined,” he says.
Mind and body: Rabbi Smokler works out “obsessively” and “can’t sleep at night if I don’t run and do the weights.”