A swimmer returns as spiritual leader

He first put on tefillin with Maccabiah USA. Two decades later, Daniel Greyber rejoined the games as his delegation’s rabbi

Aaron Kalman is a former writer and breaking news editor for the Times of Israel

Daniel Greyber talks to the crowd at Maccabiah 2013 (photo credit: courtesy)
Daniel Greyber talks to the crowd at Maccabiah 2013 (photo credit: courtesy)

For Daniel Greyber, the 1993 Maccabiah was a cornucopia of firsts: his first trip to Israel, his first visit to the Western Wall and, as a result, the first time he put on tefillin. Two decades later, he returned to Israel for the games — this time as the rabbi escorting the US’s delegation.

The rabbi relates that one of the personal highlights of his recent trip took place during a visit to the Western Wall with some of the delegation’s athletes. “Of course there were a number of Chabad [volunteers] asking people to put on tefillin,” he told The Times of Israel shortly after the 19th Maccabiah ended. “It was like closing a circle — that’s when I first put on tefillin [in 1993].”

As a child Greyber spent much of his time in the pool, swimming as often as 11 times a week, and was later accepted to Berkeley’s prestigious swim program. In 1993 he was fresh out of college, a talented swimmer who had competed for Berkeley before transferring to Northwestern. Greyber joined the US swimming team to the 14th Maccabiah Games and returned home from Israel with a bronze medal in the 200 meter backstroke and a gold in the 100 meter event.

But it wasn’t the competition that left the greatest impression. It was something else. Recalling his experiences from those games, he says that to win in Israel was “an incredible feeling, as I reached back and saw my aunt and uncle and [saw that] all the signs were in Hebrew… I had this incredible feeling of being at home.”

‘Athletes are peripheral to the Jewish community’

It was “pretty amazing to come back [to the Maccabiah] 20 years later,” Greyber said over the phone from Durham, North Carolina, where he serves as a full-time spiritual leader for the Beth El congregation, which caters to both Orthodox and Conservative families in the area.

What does a delegation rabbi do? “The most important goal for me was trying to get to know as many of the athletes as possible, and making myself available,” he answers. When the team toured Israel “my job was to ride buses, be at the different sites; sometimes grab the mike, but usually just wander with people,” he says. The most important thing was “to ask questions, or to answer questions” posed by the delegation members.

Greyber says many elements of the games, essentially a massive Jewish get-together — this year comprising some 9,000 people from over 70 countries — haven’t changed. Forming connections between people, building identity, and the opening ceremony are just as important as they were in ’93.

But Greyber’s perspective is different from 20 years ago. “So many of the participants are young adults. Up till now lots of them attended the Jewish world because their parents did, and they’re at the age of transition, where they say ‘I’m becoming my own person now,'” he says. Once one of those people seeking to build an identity, the rabbi now helps others do it for themselves.

Daniel Greyber at the '93 Maccabiah (photo credit: Courtesy)
Daniel Greyber at the ’93 Maccabiah (photo credit: Courtesy)

“Athletes are peripheral to the Jewish community,” Greyber says, citing this as a factor hindering the involvement of Maccabiah participants in active Jewish life. Competing on weekends and having to practice twice a day, sometimes early in the morning, make it very hard to take part in daily prayer services, he notes.

“When I left for college, my mother put a book in my bag — ‘When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough,’ by Rabbi Harold Kushner.” The book, he says, “planted the question, which grew — especially post-college.” The dream of “finding a job, getting married and having 2.5 children before waking up one day in a house in the suburbs” was prominent in his life (he admits to living that dream, with a few small changes). But afterward, he predicts, many people will suffer “a meaning-of-life crisis” when those things aren’t enough.

“I don’t think you can answer these questions through your job… Even if you’re a doctor.” There are very few people who can find a deep meaning in their chosen occupation, he believes. Rather, “there’s a need for a religious answer.”

After finishing his graduate degree in communications, Greyber came to Israel for a year on a World Union of Jewish Students program based in the southern town of Arad. While the program exposed its participants to the Hebrew language and took them touring in Israel, the young Greyber “was also exploring ‘how do you pray’ or ‘how do you put on tefillin.'”

Greyber returned to the US, got married and worked in the communication field in Chicago for a year before deciding to attend the Ziegler Rabbinical School, where he received his ordination in 2002. He says he chose that program over others because it was “the Conservative movement looking at texts from a religious perspective rather than just an academic one.”

Greyber says that looking at things with a personal touch, not just as an observer, was central to his 2013 Maccabiah experience. He says the main part of his job was to “be present, connect to as wide a group as possible.”

He was kept busy during this year’s games, visiting the Western Wall several times and leading a ceremony at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial four times, because the 1,200-strong US delegation couldn’t all fit in at once.

But most of all, he talked. “I spoke with coaches and staff members with questions… I connected to them.” Some of the discussions related to Greyber’s most recent book about dealing with loss, “Faith Unravels: A Rabbi’s Struggle With Grief and God”; others dealt with a wide range of topics. “Maybe they didn’t have a rabbi at home,” Gruyber says, “or [maybe] they didn’t feel comfortable talking to him.”

However, for the rabbi one of the most moving moments was the adult bar mitzva ceremony that was held at the end of Tisha b’Av, a day usually not affiliated with joyful events. Participants were called up to the Torah in groups, and “the third group was made of people who had never had a bar mitzva and had never been to Israel.” At that moment, he says, “many people were crying.”

Rabbi Daniel Greyber (photo credit: courtesy)
Rabbi Daniel Greyber (photo credit: Courtesy)

That ceremony, like other group services held by delegations in which women were actively involved, was conducted at the southern part of the Western Wall, also known as Robinson’s Arch. “Religious politics were not an issue” among the participants, Greyber says, and therefore he didn’t need to explain why non-Orthodox groups weren’t permitted to conducted their prayer services at the Wall’s main plaza.

Politics in general, he continues, were “not the focus, but I didn’t shy away from” the topic. Diplomatic questions came up from time to time. Buses sometimes would travel down Route 443 from Jerusalem, taking teams beyond the Green Line. Such a ride “could be used to open people’s eyes to the complexity of the area,” he recalled.

For Greyber, the Maccabiah should also a chance for Israelis to learn about the Jewish communities of the Diaspora. While Jews living in the US learn about Israel, the “Israeli schools don’t talk about US Jewry,” he says. “One of the things that concerns me about Israelis is the extent to which they care” about their relationship with Jews abroad. “The games are an opportunity.”

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