Spotlight: Dani Levine
Updated: May 25, 2020
Dani Levine is a member of IOWA’s Ovdim cohort, and serves as Avodah’s National Service Corps Director. She previously served as the Assistant Director of National Programming and as the New Orleans Director. Dani was born and raised in Washington, DC and fell in love with the Jewish Social Justice community through involvement with Habonim Dror. She studied Environmental Studies and Comparative American Studies at Oberlin College and received her Masters of Public Health from Tulane University in Environmental Health and Policy. Dani lives in New Orleans with her wife and three kids.
The IOWA Leadership Cohort is a
retreat-based learning and practice spiritual community for experienced Jewish social justice leaders. The purpose of the cohort is to make social change a sustainable and nourishing practice by grounding it in Jewish spiritual wisdom that integrates cultivation of the inner-life with action in
The Leadership Cohort also makes Jewish spiritual wisdom and practice an accessible resource for people addressing the most pressing social issues of our time including racism, climate change and political polarization.
Can you start by introducing yourself and tell us about your involvement with the IOWA project, and what you do outside of the IOWA project?
My name is Dani Levine, and I live in New Orleans, Louisiana, which is one of the greatest cities in the world. I’m really fortunate to be a member of the inaugural Ovdim cohort with the IOWA project. In my day job, I work for Avodah as the National Service Corps Director, overseeing our Jewish Service Corps program across all of our program cities.
For most of my life, social justice has been an intrinsic part of my Jewish experience, maybe even the majority of my Jewish experience. I grew up in Washington D.C., was involved in Habonim Dror growing up, and learned critical analysis through Jewish community. I went to Oberlin College where I continued that rich tradition. I moved to San Francisco, and ended up in New Orleans. Being in New Orleans was the first place where I really fell into a robust Jewish community that wasn’t a social justice community where everyone was also Jewish. I got involved in more organized Jewish life in New Orleans and really brought the justice component of my prior Jewish existence to my New Orleans Jewish life. I’ve been in New Orleans for a little over a decade now, joined a couple of synagogues, got married, and have three little kids that I’m raising.
Can you introduce the Ovdim Cohort, and share a little bit more from your experience with the cohort?
There’s 12 of us in the cohort, and it’s a very special group of people. I feel really humbled to be among such tremendous rock stars. People who are leaders in the Jewish community, whose works I cite when I teach, whose blogs I read, and to whom I look when decisions seem particularly sticky. It’s just been amazing for me to have this connection to movement leaders and trailblazers in the work of Jewish justice circles. I’ve learned so much from every single member of the cohort.
In addition to being a space for learning, the cohort is designed to build community. It was a little scary for me to embark on the community component, especially since I’m geographically so far away from almost everyone else. It’s scary to be vulnerable and build community in general, and especially to do so virtually. David really considered that and had the brilliant idea to start [the cohort experience] with a beautiful retreat at Isabella Freedman. The retreat was modeled to be like Shabbat even though it was Sunday to Thursday, and served as a time to get to know each other, share and be vulnerable, and explore our spiritual practices. It really gave us the context we needed to be able to do the virtual meetings and continue to build through the screens. We meet virtually every other week for a video call. It’s a good chunk of time where we do some sharing and learning. And then we split up into chavruta, traditional study partners. The chavruta meet bi-weekly as well, and it’s a little bit of accountability, a little bit of encouragement, a little bit of support, and a lot of beautiful connection. Really unexpected (for me), beautiful connection.
The second Ovdim cohort retreat just took place in December. Can you talk a little bit about what’s still sitting with you?
We were fortunate enough to have the incredibly brilliant Rabba Tamar Elad-Appelbaum for our last retreat in December, and she led us for a few days in a study around prayer. The retreat was very powerful. For me, prayer has always seemed a bit like a cop-out. Like, instead of working for something, I’ll just pray. Or I’ll send thoughts and prayers instead of making meaningful legislation. The concept of prayer as a meaningful part of justice work has generally felt very trite to me.
And despite that frustration with prayer, I have always enjoyed ritual. I go to Shabbat services with my kids nearly every week. And still, the thought and act of prayer gets tricky for me. The meanings of the words are a stumbling block for me. The translation, the gendered language, it’s all challenging for me. Though again, I appreciate the ritual.
Rabbi Tamar asked, “yeah, what are the words saying? What is the struggle? Where is it? What is the power of prayer?” And, she just kept pushing it. Giving us all permission to yell and be angry and also to be silent, all as different vehicles of prayer. She asked, “What does it mean to have a blessing said for you? What does it mean to offer a prayer?” She gave us opportunities to sit in the discomfort through different rituals. And it was through a particularly beautiful ritual that she shared from her family; a Mizrahi tradition of offering blessings and prayers for other people called the Feast of Amenim, where I think I felt a switch in me. She encouraged everyone in the cohort to offer blessings and prayers for people in our lives. As the retreat ended, I realized I really wanted to ask the group for prayers for an issue I’ve been struggling with. I really feel the change in myself. Now, I want to ask for prayers, and I don’t think it’s a cop-out. I’m not going to stop doing the things I’m doing to solve the issues, but I’m also going to ask for prayers because I think there’s something powerful there, both from the people offering them, and being open to receive them. I approached the retreat by really trying to sit with my hard edges and my anger at prayer as an answer, [as well as] the potential and possibility of prayer as a piece of important, moving spiritual practice, and maybe even potentially part of an answer.
My spiritual practice and spiritual life are very much a work in progress, but that’s what it should be, right? It should be a struggle. Sitting in the discomfort is a spiritual practice rather than spiritually unsettled, or unfulfilled, or rejected, which is where I was before.
How have you seen your work with the cohort affect your work with Avodah?
There’s a lot of clear direct parallels with my participation in the cohort and my professional work because I’m working in the Jewish community and overseeing cohort programs. The cohort has been such a well designed program, and it’s helped me to think about how I can incorporate some of the elements that have worked so well in my experience into the programs that I oversee at Avodah. We’ve also had some masterful facilitators at our retreats, so I’ve been able to pick up ideas for my own facilitation through watching those experts. The content we’re learning is rich. There is so much that I am learning about Jewish practices and spiritual nourishment that I am able to bring into the Jewish programming at Avodah.
In terms of the personal growth, I feel the point of Mussar practices are to be a better version of yourself, and so, when I’m doing them right, I can feel that I’m being a better version of myself; a better wife, a better mother, a better colleague, more responsible, more attune to other people’s needs, more attune to the issues that are getting in the way. I am more aware of the distance between who I want to be and where I am, and I’m actively working to close that gap.
It feels very fulfilling to be immersed in a community. I have more tolerance for being in Jewish spaces where I need to wear my professional hat representing an organization, when I know I have this other Jewish space with Ovdim that I can retreat to and ask my questions or share my doubts. I felt comfortable being so myself, and so aggressive about my concerns and anger with different components of practice, because I knew I could be in that space and struggle. And I think that translates to more sustainability in the work long-term. More nourishment to stay and do Jewish justice work. So instead of feeling burnt out, I now have a refuge space so I can continue the work.
How has the involvement impacted your spiritual life?
Prior to my participation in the Ovdim cohort, I would never have described myself as spiritual or on a spiritual journey. And yesterday, I used the term spiritual justice to describe some work or to define something that was providing fulfillment to me in terms of a nonprofit board I’m on. That’s a big change in six months. I now feel there’s spiritual justice, and the way in which I had been saying so adamantly “I am not spiritual,” is because I was allowing a very limited definition to define practice. I was rejecting the term because I had internalized that definition. Therefore, my spiritual practice and spiritual life are very much a work in progress, but that’s what it should be, right? It should be a struggle. Sitting in the discomfort is a spiritual practice rather than spiritually unsettled, or unfulfilled, or rejected, which is where I was before.
I think it’s very hard to measure spiritual growth. It started way before I could acknowledge that it was in process. I’m only looking at it now as sort of an entry point, but really it has been months in the making. I can’t pinpoint the exact beginning, but I can appreciate that without this cohort experience, without the love from my chavruta, without the teaching, and the retreat spaces to really struggle, and learn, I don’t think that I would be at the place where I am now. Even if I don’t know exactly where the place I am now is along this spiritual journey.
Can you talk a little bit more about the social justice work you’re involved in?
I have always felt like the Jewish practice that feels most sure to me is the work for justice. I came to the belief that if I wanted to do justice work, I needed to do it in my own community, the Jewish community. At Avodah, I’m lucky that I get to do work that is meaningful to me and that creates real change in the world. I help to provide a foundation for young people in the Service Corp program, which I oversee. Every year, 75 young folks come through for the year to do justice work in Jewish and intentional community. We do curricular programming with them on a weekly basis, rooting them in Jewish practice and history, and then they do full-time work, spending half of their time in direct service with people living in poverty.
Folks who come through Avodah each year go on to be leaders in the Jewish community. If they all have that basis of systemic justice, of Jewish thought on social justice, that’s real and incredible change in this country around how the Jewish community interacts with and understands its role within larger justice movements, with what it means to ask in solidarity, and how we think about our community and understand racism, sexism, economic justice, and oppression. I feel a tremendous amount of gratitude that I get to do that professionally.
There are a couple spaces in New Orleans where I also dedicate a fair amount of time working on important justice issues. One is an organization that works with families who have babies in the NICU, (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit), and families who have lost infants or children. My degree is in public health, and I studied health disparities. The racial disparities in maternal and fetal health in New Orleans are so outstandingly egregious. It’s an important component of reproductive justice work that I am really passionate about, and that often gets overlooked in the national conversations about reproductive justice. And so I work with this organization, called Saul’s Light, which provides bereavement support and NICU support while also doing advocacy and community engagement work..
I’m also transracially parenting, and that has had a huge impact on where I see my role in addressing race and racism in Jewish spaces. Thanks to encouragement from my Ovdim cohort members, I’ve become very active in building multi-racial Jewish spaces in New Orleans. So I spend some time cultivating that, with all the caveats that I am a white Ashkenazi woman, so it’s not really my place to build multi-racial Jewish spaces, and I want multi-racial Jewish spaces for my son, so I’m building them where it’s appropriate, and finding a lot of meaning in that. I’m also working to bring racial justice educators into institutional Jewish spaces in New Orleans. I’m currently raising money to try and bring one of the members of my cohort, who facilitates racial justice workshops, specifically for early childhood Jewish educators, to New Orleans.
In this current moment, and as a parent, what are the tools you’ve learned from the cohort that have helped you stay grounded, focused?
All of Mussar is like an exercise in how to parent. For every middot [we learn], I thought, “oh obviously, I know how this applies”. Tolerance, patience, love and kindness, are all absolutely goals I aspire to in my parenting. I have three very energetic little children, two seven year olds, and a four year old. There’s a lot of energy and movement in my household, so I think Mussar is an incredible tool. [It’s] a reminder of love, and kindness, and patience, and tolerance, and building a practice for that. We have an action that we’re supposed to do each day as part of our practice, and right now, the action is helping return lost items. My kids are always asking me, “where is this, what’s this thing?” And so I have a choice every time that’s asked; to get irritated with them or to help them find it. That extends very simply. I made a choice early on that one of my actions would be that the first interaction I have with my kids, either first thing in the morning or when they walk in from school, would be one of love and kindness, not one of rebuke. That seems so obvious, but at 5:30 in the morning when someone comes into your room and says “my water cup is empty”, I want to be like “THEN GO FILL IT UP. GET OUT, I’M SLEEPING”. To really have the presence of mind to respond with, “you must be thirsty, I love you, please go back to sleep,” is really revolutionary in terms of a reminder of accountability.
I really resonate with something you’ve brought up, that you’re building community virtually because you’re not based on the north-east coast. How has that affected your experience, or how have you brought that into your work with IOWA?
It’s my persona and belief in general that New Orleans is the best city in the world, there’s nowhere I’d rather live, it’s incredible. At the end of the first retreat this summer, I cried. And I think at the retreat, I felt that wall, whatever it was, had totally been punctured because I was seeing all of these vibrant Jewish spaces that people in the cohort had, that they didn’t have to travel that far for. I used to have this more progressive Jewish community, but now that I’m parenting, it’s really hard to find it.
At the end of that retreat, when I was talking about how I really need multi-racial Jewish spaces, someone at the cohort said, “well maybe you should start one”. So I left the retreat, and I texted my friend Kimberly, the founder of Saul’s Light and Saul’s mom, and said, “we need to do this.” She’s a black Jewish woman. And I said, “Do you want to do this? Do you want to start this with me? And I know it’s weird, I know it’s inappropriate because I’m white and it’s not my place to build black Jewish spaces, but I really want to have multi-racial Jewish space, and so I want to create it as best I can, and I have a big dining room table, and do you want to do it?” And she said “Yeah. When are you hosting Shabbat?”
And so, that’s really tangible. I felt what was possible. I mourned what I didn’t have. And then someone said, “do it, build it." And yeah, it would be cool if I lived in New York or Boston and had all these spaces. But how cool that I get to be in New Orleans and have these spaces, and create these spaces? I can take pieces of it to build my own Shabbos practice here. And I can still have Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest and 75 degree weather in January.
What is something that’s bringing you life right now outside of IOWA, the cohort, outside Judaism?
It was just carnival season, so that always brings me life. It’s a celebration. And getting to see carnival through the eyes of my children, is a marathon of joy. There’s been a lot to celebrate these last couple of months in my family. My birthday was at the end of December, then the start of carnival season, then two of my kids had birthdays, then it’s all the parades and festivities for two weeks of Mardi Gras madness. This is a time of just all out indulgence and pleasure and consumption and I love it. I love celebrations. I love the music. I love dancing in the street with hundreds of my neighbors.