The University of Chicago News Office
March 11, 1996 Press Contact: Josh Schonwald
(773) 702-6421

Rabbi Daniel I. Leifer, Hillel Director at the University of Chicago, dies after more than 25 years of service

Rabbi Daniel I. Leifer, Director of the University of Chicago’s Hillel Foundation for 25 years and annual organizer of the enthusiastically received Latke-Hamentash debates, died at home March 10. He was 60.

“He was a wonderful fellow, bright and smart and very funny,” said Wendy Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago. “He encouraged interfaith dialogue, he ran a thought-provoking lecture series, he counseled students. He was a moral voice on campus.”

Under Leifer’s direction, the University of Chicago’s Newberger Hillel Center was a gathering place for faculty members wishing to discuss religious issues, adding to its reputation of being the most intellectual Hillel in the country. “It was very University of Chicago,” said Ralph Austen, University of Chicago Professor of History, Hillel congregation member and former chair of Hillel’s board of directors. Leifer also built up Hillel’s library, which now has a national reputation for excellence.

“He loved Jewish learning, loved to study and teach others both directly and by example. He had a direct, positive, influence on hundreds–if not thousands–of students, faculty, staff and others, from all walks of life," said Rabbi Suzanne Griffel, Associate Director of Hillel.

“Danny was very learned, very good at answering questions. His congregation was conservative egalitarian–it was inclusive not only of gender, but also of radically different points of view. He emphasized discussion, and everyone got a chance to speak,” said Austen.

There was, however, another side to Leifer.

Leifer, with Ted Cohen, University of Chicago Professor of Philosophy, organized the annual “Latke-Hamentash Symposium,” which will celebrate its 50th anniversary in the fall. The symposium debates the merits of latkes (potato pancakes) and hamentashen (triangular pastries), following the Jewish practice of spoofing rabbinical tradition and mimicking teachers. It parodies both Jewish custom and the rigorous and highly academic nature of the University.

“The debate started off as something that could literally be held in Hillel’s small living room, but it really took off with Danny. He always introduced the debate with some ridiculously funny spoof on numerology, wearing costumes he had bought in antique shops. Last year we had several hundred people in Palesky Cinema–people were sitting in the aisles. Next year, he was planning on moving it to Mandel Hall, because over 1000 people had expressed interest in attending. He turned it into an enormous institution, a city-wide event,” said Cohen.

More seriously, he organized a series of dinners and other opportunities to share rituals between Jewish and Muslim students. “It reaffirmed their personal commitment to that sort of friendship, and the hope that violence need not be the only way. He was also active with the Protestant and Catholic chaplains," Doniger said. “He opened minds. He helped a lot of people in a quiet way.”

“It strikes me that everyone knew him as Danny,” said Charles Lipson, Associate Professor in Political Science at the University of Chicago and chair of Hillel’s board. “He was a person of substantial learning who nevertheless held himself with humility. He had a willingness to engage, teach and learn without arrogance. Danny was one of those people who made the University a wonderful place to live and be.”

Friends and colleagues noted that because of his influence, Leifer’s congregation was especially close and supportive. Austen noted that it is Jewish tradition to stand guard over the casket of one recently deceased. “Usually, the family hires someone at the funeral home to do it. But Danny’s friends, family and congregation have taken on the task, watching through the night. He was well loved,” Austen said.

Leifer received a B.S. from Harvard College in 1957, graduating magna cum laude. He spent a year at Hebrew University in Jerusalem in 1957 and received his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1962. Before coming to Chicago, he was a chaplain in the U.S. Air Force, based in Texas. He joined the University in 1964 as Associate Director of Hillel, becoming Director in 1971.

Leifer was active in the Hyde Park-Kenwood Council of Jewish Organizations. He was president of the Association of Hillel and Jewish Campus Professionals in 1971 and chairman of the Midwest Committee for Conscientious Objection from 1968 to 1972. He was a member of the National Hillel Commission from 1971 to 76.

He is survived by his wife Myra, his daughter Ariel, his mother Agatha, his brother Elihu, two nephews and a niece.

Memorial contributions may be sent to the Hillel Foundation, 5715 S. Woodlawn Ave., Chicago, IL 60637; the New Israel Fund, 55 E. Monroe, Suite 2930, Chicago, IL 60603; and Mazon (a Jewish response to hunger), 12401 Wilshire Blvd., Suite 303, Los Angeles, CA 90025-1015.

A memorial service will be held at 1 p.m. Tuesday, March 12 at K.A.M.-Isaiah Israel, 1100 E. Hyde Park Blvd.
Last modified at 03:50 PM CST on Wednesday, June 14, 2000.

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