March 14, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 13

current issue
archive / search

    Obituary: Rabbi Daniel Leifer

    Rabbi Daniel Leifer, Director of Hillel Foundation for 25 years and co-organizer of the annual Latke-Hamentash Symposium, died at home on March 10. He was 60.

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

    Rabbi Suzanne Griffel, Associate Director of Hillel, said, "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."

    "Danny was very learned, very good at answering questions," said Ralph Austen, Professor in History and former chair of Hillel's board of directors. "His congregation was conservative-egalitarian -- it was inclusive not only of gender, but also of a wide range of historical and ethical points of view on scripture. He emphasized discussion, and everyone got a chance to speak."

    His work with students included organizing a series of dinners and other ritual-sharing opportunities for Jewish and Muslim students. "It reaffirmed for the students their personal commitment to that sort of friendship, and the hope that violence need not be the only way. He also interacted frequently with the Protestant and Catholic chaplains," Doniger said. "He opened minds. He helped a lot of people in a quiet way."

    On campus, Leifer was well known as co-organizer, with Ted Cohen, Professor in Philosophy, of the Latke-Hamentash Symposium, which will celebrate its 50th year this fall. The symposium debates the relative merits of the latke (potato pancake) and the hamentash (a triangular pastry), following the Jewish practice of spoofing rabbinical tradition and mimicking teachers. It parodies both Jewish custom and the rigorous and 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," Cohen said. "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 Max Palevsky Cinema -- people were sitting in the aisles. Next year, he was planning on moving it to Mandel Hall, because more than 1,000 people had expressed interest in attending. He turned it into an enormous institution, a citywide event."

    "It strikes me that everyone knew him as Danny," said Charles Lipson, Associate Professor in Political Science and chair of Hillel's board of directors. "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 for lifelong learning and personal growth.

    "This is a personal loss for a lot of people," Lipson added. "We are deeply grieving."

    Leifer received his B.S. from Harvard in 1957 and his rabbinical ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York in 1962. He came to Chicago in 1964 as Associate Director of Hillel. He was named Director in 1971.

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

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