Tribute to Danny Allen
By Jonathan Feldstein
On the conclusion of Shloshim
Danny Allen was my rabbi, my teacher, my friend, my boss, and my mentor.
I had the privilege of being part of his life, and he of mine, since 1983. I arrived at college that year as and made my way to Hillel to establish my Jewish home on campus. Danny was my Hillel rabbi and we connected instantly. I became president of Hillel in the second semester of that year and my conversations with Danny grew in frequency and substance.
There was one conversation I’ll never forget. I can see myself walking toward Danny’s office at the end of the long hall on an upper floor of the student center. I don’t recall going into see him with any particular agenda, but he had one. It was one of the many learning moments I’d have with him.
As if planned and scripted in his head, Danny asked, “What would you do if you have a decision to make with two possible outcomes, but each one being a bad outcome?”
Being the ever-knowing freshman that I was, my reply came simply. “I’d choose the least bad option.”
Danny paused, and shook his head slightly. “No. You look for a third good option.”
That lesson stuck with me since, and is a model I’ve tried to embrace throughout my life.
I didn’t understand when he left Hillel at the end of my freshman year, in another learning moment in what would become my career in Jewish communal work, that changing jobs was normal, like shuffling a deck of cards. Ultimately, we are all playing the same game. Sometimes we have winning hands and change jobs because we choose to do so; to grow, get a raise, and take on new challenges. Sometimes we have losing hands, and career changes happen because of internal politics or board members playing a trump card.
I remember affectionately suggesting “Maybe you can go underground like Abbie Hoffman, have plastic surgery, and come back as someone else before my senior year.”
I was privileged to have a close relationship with Danny over the ensuing decades. This was his hallmark. He embodied making and nurturing personal relationships. A conversation never went by that he didn’t ask about my family. He cared.
That was reflected in his joining my family to celebrate our oldest daughter becoming a bat mitzvah the year after we made Aliyah. He had pride in seeing former students doing well, particularly in Jewish communal work. I can picture him in the back of the crowd as I spoke, publicly imparting to my daughter the blessings and hopes I had for her. He was shepping nachas for sure, but he was also watching closely, evaluating.
Looking beneath the surface was something I learned that Danny did often as well. He was always assessing, conferring, and planning based on changing realities. Every detail mattered. Standing in a parking lot together once, he observed how something as seemingly insignificant as a bumper sticker on a particular vehicle depicted a more detailed reality. I’d have never thought to look at, much less assess the significance of a bumper sticker.
He taught me numerous things that still impact me and make me a better professional and a better person.
Like others I am sure, I had the occasion to disappoint Danny once in a while. Because he wanted everyone to be their best, and he wanted that for me, his validation mattered. He articulated his disappointment but didn’t hold it against me. He wanted me to grow and learn. That made me better. That was his raison d’etre.
After getting settled in my new life in Israel, I called Danny one afternoon to share an idea I had for the position he had just assumed with a major American Jewish organization. He liked the idea. We agreed to meet the next time he was in Israel. During that meeting he reiterated that the idea was good, and he liked my reasoning. But then he shared with me all the reasons that it wouldn’t work.
If he had an agenda in our conversation my freshman year I didn’t know it. But Danny pivoted our Jerusalem conversation with a clear agenda, and told me the reason he wanted to meet was because he wanted to hire me to be his representative in Israel. That was an honor and an opportunity not to pass up. A few months later he became my boss. We worked and strategized closely together as he set out to put together a team that could do its best for Israel and the Jewish people. He innovated unique ideas and allowed, guided, and encouraged me to do the same.
In the first year of our working together in this new relationship, my mother died. Other than the grief, I had the responsibility to fly back to the US regularly during her illness and shiva, and to clean out her house and settle her estate. Toward the end of that period, I realized that Danny never once mentioned vacation time. He told me to take as much time as I needed. That was unusual because he truly cared, and because as the boss and under the circumstances, he bent the rules of official bereavement and vacation time for me to do what I needed to do.
It wasn’t unusual or out of character for Danny to do this. I remember thanking him and noting then that I had lost both of my parents, and his were still alive. He displayed incredible sensitivity despite never having gone through the experience of personal loss and bereavement. It was a small but no less remarkable thing, a personal comfort, and another learning moment.
Sometime during my freshman year, we had a Shabbaton for Hillel leaders. That week’s Havdalah remains one of the most memorable in my life. When I make Havdalah still today, I think of it. As someone held the candle high for all to see, Danny commented about seeing the reflection of the candle in our fingernails. When I look at the flame of the Havdalah candle reflected in my fingernails nearly four decades later, I think of Danny.
But whether he intended it or not, it was also a learning moment. The reflection of the candle on a small appendage of our bodies gives me a moment each week to reflect on the week that just ended, and the week ahead. But even more so, it gives me a chance to look into myself and reflect on what I want to be, and how to be the best I can. I credit Danny Allen with this insight along with many more.
Fortunately, I was in the US on the day of Danny’s funeral. This took place on the 10th of Tevet, a fast day mourning the initial Babylonian siege of Jerusalem that would end several months later with the destruction of the First Temple. Fittingly, Danny Allen’s burial would be on a day of national Jewish mourning. His death is first and foremost a loss for his wife, children, grandchildren, siblings and cousins. Many, like myself, feel that loss as well. But his death is also a loss for the Jewish people.
There’s another aspect to the timing that I wish Danny were here to critique. If we understand that the destruction of the Temple took place because of sinat hinam, baseless hatred, among Jews, the siege of Jerusalem could have been a wake-up call. If during the Babylonian siege we understood and sought to reflect upon and rectify this, perhaps we could have changed the outcome.
I see Danny sitting quietly, evaluating, and nodding along with this thesis. Or at least I’d like to see that, not just because I wish he were still alive and present to have this conversation. His opinion mattered.
As much as Danny Allen was about Jewish unity, he hated the opposite: divisiveness and disrespect. In that sense, despite the loss which is palpable to those who knew him, maybe his burial was another Danny Allen learning moment. As we mourn our loss personally and communally, we need to commit ourselves anew to be the best we can be, to strive to strengthen Israel and the broader Jewish community in unifying and not divisive ways.
We should do so not only in Danny’s honor and memory, following his example, but as if our very lives and future depended on it the same way the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem had then. I think if Danny were reading this, based on the discord that exists among us, he’d agree. Our future does depend on it.
Danny Allen is no longer physically present to guide and inspire us to be better as individuals, communal professionals, or as a people. However for those who were privileged to know and work with him, he continues to guide us and teach us in many ways. May his memory and legacy always be a blessing.
Jonathan Feldstein was born and educated in the U.S. and immigrated to Israel in 2004. He shares insights and experiences of living as an Orthodox Jew in Israel, writing for prominent Christian and conservative web sites and appearing on many Christian TV and radio programs. He is the president of Run for Zion and the Genesis 123 Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via www.runforzion.com.