Dan Butler describes himself as a teen who had become lackadaisical about Judaism, though he had been a star student at the fledgling Yeshiva of Scranton in the 1960s. (“I was valedictorian – shows you how low the bar was back then,” he quips.) Fearful that his cynicism might reach toxic levels, his siblings insisted that he needed to recharge his spirituality at a Torah Leadership Seminar run by Yeshiva University at Camp Morasha. “All the heavy hitters of the kiruv scene were there – Rabbis Riskin and Weiss, as well as other charismatic leaders,” recalls Dan. “And somehow, inexplicably, I had forgotten to bring my tefillin. They were all over me.”
And that experience changed his life. He came back enthralled, not only by what he had heard, but by what he had seen. “I was straight out of yeshivah, and here I was in a co-ed scene watching public school kids hanging on to every word the rabbis uttered.” They were grappling with the basics − with aleph bet − he realized, while he had been privileged to grow up in an observant home and attend a yeshivah. Suddenly his entire outlook changed, and he wanted to share what he had with others. He’s been passionate about outreach ever since.
Back in those days, there was a thin line between the Yeshiva University youth program and NCSY. It was through these organizations that he met the three most pivotal people in his life: Ivan Lerner, first regional director of Central East NCSY, who hired Dan as his assistant in 1971; Gary Torgow, the first NCSYer assigned to Dan, who became an invaluable friend and supporter; and Nina Novetsky, who later became Mrs. Dan Butler. And he met all three on the same day.
It was at a Torah Leadership Seminar in December of 1970 that a few of Dan’s remarkable talents became known. The event was not going well and some advisors got together to see what they could do to salvage the weekend. On the spot, a skit was created, with Dan improvising as a Holocaust survivor (complete with European accent). “I cried, I screamed – the audience was mesmerized,” he says. From that day on, his intense, emotional, forty-minute bit was known as “the Nazi routine” and it became famous in NCSY. In 1975 he and Gary Torgow took it on the road, visiting summer camps coast to coast.
In fact, at a Shabbaton in Cleveland in the 1980s, he was on the scene when NCSY advisors were puzzling over how to break through to an audience of cold, unreceptive kids. “Should I do the Nazi routine?” Dan asked Rabbi Stolper, receiving an enthusiastic affirmative answer. Unfamiliar with the skit, the person running the event didn’t like the sound of that idea. “Trust me,” Rabbi Stolper told him, “it’s the best thing we’ve got!” Dan did it that night − and it worked.
Lately he’s moved on to more contemporary presentations. “I was never an NCSYer, but if your grandma was in NCSY, I was probably her advisor,” Dan tells young audiences today. He recounts his professional involvement with NCSY as though he has done it a thousand times. Ivan Lerner, as mentioned, had seen that Dan had innumerable talents and hired him as his assistant when Dan was only nineteen years old. Later, when Ivan retired from the position, Dan became regional director.
Dan was recognized as one of the dynamite leaders that kept NCSY growing. Naturally, he became close to Rabbi Pinchas Stolper while the latter was still national director of NCSY. At one point, when Dan was thinking of leaving his position at NCSY, Rabbi Stolper dragged him into the office of Rabbi Berel Wein, then executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, hoping Rabbi Wein would convince him to stay. What followed clearly delineated the characteristic styles of these two leading figures. “Rabbi Stolper, in his fluid, effusive way, began to wax poetic about my impact on NCSY,” recalls Dan, n“but Rabbi Wein held up his hand and said, ‘Spare us the Klal Yisrael speech. Danny, are you going to stay or not?’”
Eventually, he went to law school, but outreach was never far from Dan’s thoughts. He remained actively involved in NCSY, going to Shabbatonim and conventions, raising money and encouraging others to do likewise.
But wait, that’s not all. In his varied career he has been a college professor, a weekly syndicated columnist, a judicial law clerk, a prosecutor and a family court hearing officer. For eleven years, Dan (or rather, the Honorable Daniel Butler) served as a judge of the Municipal Court of Pittsburgh. Additionally, after ten years on Pittsburgh’s semi-weekly Domestic Violence Court, his participation in national judicial domestic violence seminars under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Justice earned him the approbation of the National Conference of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. He and Nina were both Community Service Awardees of the United Jewish Federation of Pittsburgh. In his spare time, Dan is an Executive Board member of the Orthodox Union and has spoken in dozens of cities as a Scholar-in-Residence in its behalf. Not surprisingly, his blend of experience, insight and humor make him highly sought after as a motivational speaker. He speaks an average of once a week, sometimes as a motivational speaker, other times to fundraise for NCSY or HASC.
He credits Nina with not only keeping the home fires burning, but for inspiring all who know her (including him) with her devotion to outreach and chesed. “Nina is a chesed machine,” Dan remarks, and he can pinpoint when her most challenging activities began. With the first liver transplant at a Pittsburgh hospital in the 1980s, Pittsburgh became “the transplant capital of the world.” Patients streamed in, including some who were Jewish, but there were few local kosher accommodations back then. Nina and Dan joined venerable Orthodox Union activist and officer, Donald Butler, a”h, and his wife Chantze (Dan’s uncle and aunt who lived next door), who spearheaded “Friends of Jewish Patients” to provide kosher food and respite to patients and their families. Moreover, they put up those families in their own home, sometimes for months, while the patient waited for a lifesaving organ to be available.
Nina caters to their needs with her usual grace and easygoing ambience. Hosting people in such desperate circumstances has both upsides and downsides, particularly when the medical efforts are not successful. On those occasions, the small group of local hosts must help the families cope, offering solace with care and sensitivity.
On occasion, the Butlers’ guest patients have joined hundreds of locals who annually attend the Butler’s NCSY Garden Sizzler event. (This year’s was their 23rd.) One of them even “benched Gomel” at the BBQ. And that’s because the Butlers draw everyone they know into their lives and into the causes dear to their hearts. It’s a Jewish value they developed through their NCSY years and beyond, a value they have passed along not only to their children, but to thousands of people who have been fortunate enough to meet them.
Charlotte Friedland is the editor of Reunion.
This article was first printed in the Fall 2014 issue of Reunion Magazine.