By Cindy Mindell
STORRS – This month sees the arrival of a new executive director at UConn Hillel in Storrs. Daniel Levenson comes to the position after serving as executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire and with a long track record of Jewish communal engagement.
Levenson grew up in Sharon, Mass., where his family was very involved in the local Jewish community. He majored in anthropology at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst and earned a Masters at the Harvard Extension School in 2006. While there, Levenson was active at Harvard Hillel, eventually serving as president of the graduate student steering committee.
“That had a profound impact on my life, both personally and professionally,” he says of the experience. “The time I have spent in Israel as a student and volunteer, often surrounded by both Israelis and Jews from the Diaspora, also had an important influence on me, helping to reinforce the idea that while each Jewish person and each Jewish community may be unique, there are common values, ideas and concerns that tie us together no matter who we are or where we live.”
After completing his graduate degree, Levenson spent four years teaching creative writing in several programs.
“One of my most treasured work experiences in the Jewish community were the two summers I spent as a creative writing artist-in-residence at the Brandeis-Bardin Institute in southern California, where I had the chance to help create a Jewish community with young adults from communities around the world,” he says.
He founded an online journal, the New Vilna Review, devoted to exploring modern Jewish identity from an individual and communal perspective. While it was active, from 2007 to 2012, the publication featured works of poetry, fiction, and non-fiction by Jewish writers from around the world.
“Reading their work, and doing my own writing on issues and ideas within Jewish culture and history, made me realize that I wanted to devote my time to finding a meaningful way to contribute to the future of the Jewish people,” Levenson says.
He served as the assistant regional director of the Boston office of the American Jewish Committee and as director of Public Affairs at the Consulate General of Israel to New England, a position which involved working with many different communities, including Jewish communities in five states. He comes to Hillel at UConn after serving for two years as executive director of the Jewish Federation of New Hampshire.
Levenson was inspired to take the position because of his own experiences as a student at Hillel.
“Those were absolutely pivotal in my own life, so when an opportunity arose to give something back at UConn, it seemed like the perfect chance to do so,” he says. “I also know many UConn alumni who have told me great things about both the university and the Hillel and I’m very excited to have the opportunity to be a part of a place where students can find new and exciting ways to connect with Jewish history, culture, ideas and identity.”
During his tenure, Levenson will help Hillel expand its presence on campus and find more ways for students to connect with Jewish ideas and culture, whether through the arts, education, Shabbat dinners, or just hanging out with friends at social events.
“I’m also looking forward to finding new ways to partner with other student organizations and our many great partners at UConn to create space on campus to have conversations around issues and ideas that matter,” he says. “As with many large universities, students at UConn are often looking for a sense of community and connection, and Jewish students are no exception. By offering a warm, welcoming environment, UConn Hillel provides the space, both literally and figuratively, where students can find and create that community. Jewish students are also often looking to explore and form their own sense of Jewish identity; this is something that our board, staff and student leaders often focus on, creating programs and services that offer many different points of connection to Jewish life and ideas. I am personally looking forward to offering informal Jewish education opportunities this year around issues of Jewish identity, specifically designed to be accessible for anyone and everyone who is interested in the topic.”
Levenson inherits the strong relationships with UConn administration and campus groups, fostered by former Hillel executive director Gary Wolff, who was tapped in April for the chief-of-staff at the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas in the spring.
“These relationships help us to stay in tune with student needs, interests, and concerns,” Levenson says. “The topic of Israel, and how Jews as a community and individuals relate to it, is also important to consider. By having staff and student leaders knowledgeable about Israel from many different angles, we are also uniquely positioned to serve as a forum for constructive, informed discussion about the country.”
Levenson replaces Gary Jones, who served as interim director over the spring and summer.
“Gary stepped in at a time when we really needed somebody at the helm to take care of business,” says Lauri Miller, president of the UConn Hillel board of directors. “He did a wonderful job keeping our organization going during the transition.”
Levenson intends to draw on the strong support network that sustains Hillel at UConn. “We have terrific partners and supporters in the larger Jewish community around the state, including parents and alumni, whom I am looking forward to getting to know,” he says. “I am thrilled to be working at UConn Hillel along with an amazing group of students, staff, board members, and supporters.”