Behnam Dayanim has served as president of the Berman Hebrew Academy, on the board of directors for the Jewish Federation of Greater Washington and as vice president of the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington’s board. He is also a member of Kemp Mill Synagogue, a modern Orthodox congregation in Silver Spring’s Kemp Mill neighborhood. And he helped found the Beltway Va’ad, a local council of modern Orthodox rabbis. As Dayanim, 55, pointed out, he is not a rabbi. He is an attorney who helps companies in emerging industries, like fintech and gaming, keep up with regulatory changes.
You are involved in a variety of local Jewish organizations. What motivates you?
My parents instilled in me a tremendous sense of obligation to the community. Our community institutions are vital to a vibrant Jewish life. I’ve attempted to focus my efforts on issues I think are core to that mission: Jewish education, which is essential to Jewish continuity; the embrace of an inclusive, forward-thinking halachic sensibility, which is deeply meaningful to me as an Orthodox Jew; advocacy for communal needs and priorities, and for Jews as full participants in society; and outreach and partnership to other communities in support of civil rights and liberties, social justice and other causes of common concern. Organizations that speak to one or more of those priorities draw my commitment.
There’s a general perception that Orthodox Jews are more conservative than the majority of American Jews. But you’re not. What are some ways in which Orthodoxy and a centrist-liberal political worldview go together?
I don’t really see a conflict. I believe in a vision of Orthodoxy that while adhering to its core principles, models inclusivity and can coexist with the modern world.
It’s important to recognize that Judaism throughout its history has always evolved, and that is true of Orthodoxy. I think it’s important when attempting to evaluate a new idea or concept or situation to distinguish between what is truly a core principle and what is simply an artifact of culture or environment or tradition.
My wife and I have raised our children in a modern Orthodox environment. And we also support those organizations within Orthodoxy that we think are at the vanguard of the type of inclusivity that we support.
What does your Jewish day and week look like?
I try to be conscious of God in everything I do. I pray daily. I wear a kippah to work. I always have. I’m shomer Shabbat. I’m kosher. I turn off all work as soon as Shabbat begins, and my family and I celebrate Shabbat, we attend synagogue, we have Shabbat meals in our community.
I think one of the nicest things about Shabbat observance is that time you spend with people in your community. I really enjoy the forced decompress from work. No matter what’s going on, I know that at sundown Friday I don’t have to worry about it again until sundown Saturday night.
What I say to my children and other younger professionals is that everyone has commitments that take them away from work. For us, it’s Shabbat. For someone else, it may be community league baseball or a yoga class or meditation or something else where they are out of pocket. There’s nothing inappropriate or unreasonable to say for this 24-hour period I’m not available.
So, 21st century America is pretty accommodating to Orthodox Jews. How open is your Orthodox community to the marketplace of ideas?
We’re really blessed in the Kemp Mill Orthodox community. It is perhaps a little atypical. We are far more evenly divided politically than you might find in Orthodox communities in other parts of the country. Orthodox Jews in America have moved rightward. But in Kemp Mill it’s an even divide.
From leftwing Orthodoxy to haredi. You might see one person walking by in a hat and coat and another person with a T-shirt and shorts. But we still maintain that sense of community. People really have a live-and-let-live attitude. They understand that there are different approaches to Orthodoxy.