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Rabbis of LA | Rabbi Daniel Sher: His Brother’s Disability Helped Inspire His Life in Rabbinic Direction

When Rabbi Daniel Sher describes himself, as “a real extrovert,” no one has to wait a single sentence for proof.
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January 31, 2023
Photo by Jeff Lipsky

When Rabbi Daniel Sher describes himself, as “a real extrovert,” no one has to wait a single sentence for proof.

His electric personality is obvious from the moment you meet him, and it has played a part in  every step of his life, from growing up in Palos Verdes to becoming assistant rabbi at Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades.

As the youngest of three sons in a religiously Conservative family, he was not just “involved” with United Synagogue Youth (USY) but was “incredibly active.” 

“Something about Far West USY taught me to love religion through community engagement,” Sher said. “You could build meaningful relationships with people through this tradition. 

“A spark was planted in me when I was 16 that this was something I might want to do.”

Young Daniel grew up a family that, he says, was “incredibly proud of our Judaism.” 

They weren’t “a weekly Shabbat family, but oh, when spring came around, we were a machmir Passover family,” Daniel said with a grin. “Two sets of separate dishes. My Mom cooked every night.”

He chose it as his favorite Jewish holiday “because there was such an intensity around how deeply we dove into Passover.”

The Sher family, Daniel said, had an “ability to step into Jewish tradition, experience parts of it and connect with community. But, he added, “we didn’t feel an insane pressure to be at this level in all parts of our lives.”

He speaks fondly of family life. The three Sher boys were born within 33 months of each other. They were close in childhood and remain tight today.  “We had a lot of similar experiences,” Daniel recalls.

They also grew up under unique circumstances. Both eldest brother Matthew and middle brother Michael were both adopted not long before Daniel was born; Michael has been blind from birth. 

“That was a big part of what first brought me to be active in USY,” Daniel says. “There was so much home hospitality — people would host you. So I would go with Michael because it would be so much easier for him in these situations if he could be with someone who understood his rhythms and how he does things.”

Daniel says “Michael is a very large part of my spiritual story.” When Daniel was 19, the family learned that Michael’s kidneys had failed. He needed to find a kidney donor. 

Like many college freshmen, Daniel brimmed with confidence. He announced he was sure he was a match.

His parents assured Daniel that was unlikely. But he was not deterred. Michael was on home dialysis, and it seemed unlikely he would make it to the top of the priority list for a kidney.

Daniel stepped up. “I thought I was a match,” he said. “When I was tested, we had the same blood type. 

“It turned out — though incredibly unlikely — that Michael and I were an exact match. This means when my brother was adopted, a year later a son (Daniel) was born into that family who would one day be a match for him!”

Reflecting on this longshot, Daniel said it was a powerful moment in his life “to realize that you can find proof of God even in the numbers. Statistically, this never was going to happen. Yet, it did.”

Asked if his brother’s disability influenced him to become a rabbi, Sher replied that “my relationship with my siblings, especially Michael, is a part of how I interact with others … It certainly is a part of my understanding that you approach all people with compassion and kindness.”

To Sher’s thinking, he was just doing what came naturally. “Our tradition requires relationships for so much of what we do,” he said. The framework for that conviction “came from my upbringing, and the interactions my brothers and I had with each other.”

Meanwhile, the family is figuring out the best next move for Michael, and Matthew is planning to marry in June. Daniel, a happily married father of three, explained how he came to the rabbinate.

“When I was working at a Reform day camp, I kind of fell in love with some of the flexibilities of the Reform movement,” he said, and so he enrolled at Hebrew Union College. 

While at HUC, he interned at Kehillat Israel, which he describes as “one of the flagships of the Reconstructionist movement.”

For the past five years, Sher has embraced the pillars of the movement as enunciated by founder Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan. “He said there is something beautiful about the individuality of every community. You can’t put this overarching notion on the whole group of Jews.”

Sher said that “KI follows the beat of its own drummer. KI does things differently.”

As for Senior Rabbi Amy Bernstein and Cantor Chayim Frenkel, “they welcomed me in a way that has allowed me to share my own voice from day one.”

Fast Takes with Daniel Sher

Jewish Journal: What’s your favorite Jewish food?

Daniel Sher: I’m a big foodie person. Nothing beats a really amazing humus or shwarma… just as nothing beats good Israeli food.

JJ: If you could travel anywhere, where would you go?

Daniel Sher: My wife knows that my answer every time is Israel. We are going this summer.

JJ: What historical Jewish figure would you like to talk to?

Daniel Sher:  If I had the chance, I would want to sit down with Shammai [Talmudic sage] because dissenting opinions are really important.

 

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