It took Rabbi Daniel Brenner (B.A.’92, Philosophy) until now to realize that he just wants to dance.
Brenner has spent two decades finding innovative ways to connect young Jewish people with their faith. Newsweek named him one of America’s most influential rabbis for his work at the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, Auburn Theological Seminary, and Birthright Israel Foundation. He currently develops educational programs and trains mentors at Moving Traditions, a Jewish educational organization.
Now he’s working on a new idea for connecting kids with their culture. Brenner — also a musician, playwright, and essayist — is leading a one-person revolution to revive nearly forgotten Jewish dances. “I’m pursuing this crazy dream, bringing people together through dance and reclaiming a ritual that’s been lost,” he says.
On a fall day during his senior year at UW–Madison, Brenner was called to lead High Holiday services for a few hundred students at James Madison Park. The powerful experience compelled him to apply to rabbinical school. “Nothing is like Madison,” Brenner says. “The very land the UW was built upon is sacred. I sensed that so strongly as an undergraduate.”
Brenner embraced his time in Madison, studying philosophy, living in a Jewish co-op, playing with his band at the Mifflin Street Block Party, and performing at Ark Improvisational Theater with the late Chris Farley. “I found an incredible Jewish community, as well as people from rural Wisconsin, who were total kindred spirits,” he says.
Since earning his master’s degree and rabbinic title, Brenner has focused on talking with adolescents about faith, the art of listening, healthy debate, and pushing back against nonstop sharing on social media. And adults have plenty to learn from adolescents, Brenner insists — including how to embrace, rather than evade, intense emotions.
Brenner is tapping into his own feelings through dance. For the last year, he’s vigorously studied traditional 19th-century Jewish dances with roots in Eastern Europe’s smallest villages. Brenner’s teacher learned the custom from a dance master who survived World War II by escaping a Nazi work camp and entertaining Russian soldiers. “I love the range of emotions,” Brenner explains. “Popular dance is about happiness and sexiness. This captures longing, despair, brokenheartedness, hope.”
He’s turned the tradition into Klezmer Aerobics, an intergenerational dance and storytelling workout where, as Brenner puts it, “the 1880s meet the 1980s.” He concludes, “It’s my dream to see grandchildren and grandparents dance together, share traditions, and reconnect.”
Story originally published in the Summer 2017 issue of On Wisconsin Magazine.