By Leonard Robinson
Daniel Epstein, or Rabbi Dan as he’s known by George Washington University students, discovered he wanted to be a rabbi only after a career in finance and having a family. After earning smichah at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in New York, Epstein, 37, and his family came to GW Hillel, where he is senior Jewish educator.
How do you feel that Jewish life on campus has changed since the pandemic shifted everything online?
It’s really hard to meet people with everything being online. It’s really hard because only one person talks at a time. You can’t have those side conversations that make lifelong friendships. We’re really doing a lot more traditional classes because you can’t really do a lot of social events.
What do students come to you about the most?
It’s hard for me to counsel people too when we don’t have a relationship or they only see me through a screen. Many students have had job and internship offers pulled back, which is sad, but making a lot of them have to accept not being on a schedule. At GW, everything is very much on schedule, but life doesn’t always work like that. It doesn’t make it any less sad, though. A student told me she graduated high school and started college all on a computer. I wanted to cry. Going to college in person was a privilege [for me] and now someone else isn’t able to.
What led to the transition from financial adviser to rabbi?
My father-in-law has been a rabbi for 30-something years at a Staten Island shul. He’s always giving back — like how they’ve hosted homeless people in their home for the past 20 years. I started teaching at my father-in-law’s temple. I decided to pursue smichah, or ordination, and they told me about Chovevei Torah, so I went. It was a great experience, but different for me. I was married with kids and on my second career, so it was different having to go home instead of being able to sit around and learn all the time.
What drew you to working with students?
Being a campus rabbi is great because people’s biggest identity is as a student. Identifying as a student is good for life because we always want to be growing, learning and changing.
In Judaism, we’re constantly called to be students and have a learning outlook. You also, as a student, can avoid the capitalist hamster wheel for some time.
This summer, you wrote a d’var Torah and juxtaposed a photograph of George Floyd holding a Bible with Donald Trump’s infamous photo with the Bible. What was the response to that?
It was the strongest feedback of anything that I had written. A lot of people liked the piece, but a lot of rabbis didn’t like the picture. Most of my feedback was from the picture. Just the picture of George Floyd and Trump holding the Bible, people didn’t like the juxtaposition. It’s fascinating because Trump is so inflammatory and it made me just not want to write about him because he draws out such ire and support. The way a lot of people vote in college, Democrat or Republican, is how they vote for the rest of their lives. We have to make sure that we’re always willing to be open and learn.
What was your reaction to the Jessica Krug incident? [Krug was a professor who claimed she was Black. She resigned after admitting that she was actually white and Jewish.] What was the reaction that you heard from students?
Shocked and I really wanted to understand why she lied. People nowadays are searching for authenticity and what that means and how we define it. This seemed to be a part of that discovery for her. Students were also surprised and some who took her class said they felt frustrated and betrayed by what she had done.