Joel Daner, a West Orange man who devoted his life to Jewish communal service, died Nov. 20 at Saint Barnabas Medical Center in Livingston, a few days after his 72nd birthday. He had been suffering from cancer for several years.
Daner, a member of the NJ Jewish News board, gave nearly 50 years of professional service to the Jewish community. He was a vice president at Jewish federations in New York and Baltimore and held directorships in planned giving, leadership development, and education at United Jewish Communities of MetroWest NJ.
Often called in as a consultant or problem solver, he left his mark across a wide swath of Jewish community institutions.
“The truth is that in some respects, other than being a full-time executive director, I’ve probably held more portfolios in the federation world than anybody,” he told NJJN as he was being honored in 2006 with the Saul Schwarz Distinguished Service Award by the New Jersey Association of Jewish Communal Service.
“He took the time to counsel young people on personal and career issues,” said Howard Weiser, a friend from their synagogue, Ahawas Achim B’nai Jacob & David in West Orange. “But in mentoring, he was very frank, and he would tell you when you were out of line or making a wrong decision. He used tough love sometimes, but as a true friend.”
Born and raised in Worcester, Mass., Daner graduated from Yeshiva University and its Wurzweiler School of Social Work, where he served on the board of overseers.
His career began as program director at the West Bronx YM-YWHA. In 1968, he became a planning associate at what was then the Metropolitan New Jersey Federation. From there he moved up the ranks, working in the areas of Jewish education, leadership development, and bequests and endowments. He was instrumental in beginning the philanthropic fund that is today the Jewish Community Foundation of MetroWest.
He then moved to Baltimore, where, from 1978 to 1987, he served as vice president for social planning and human resource development at its Jewish federation before becoming a vice president and director of professional resource development at the New York office of what was then United Jewish Communities, the national umbrella now known as Jewish Federations of North America.
For much of 2004 Daner was interim executive director of the Jewish Education Association of MetroWest, a body that has evolved into The Partnership for Jewish Learning and Life. Since then he has worked as a consultant for a variety of Jewish organizations, including Hillel, the Jewish Education Service of North America, and several federations.
In 1974, Daner met Max Kleinman, who is now executive vice president of UJC MetroWest NJ.
“I applied for a scholarship from the Federation Executive Recruitment and Education Program, and as part of the process I had to spend a day at a federation and be interviewed by federation professionals,” said Kleinman. “I spent the day with Joel. I always joked with him that if there was an error I made or something he didn’t like, I blamed him because he got me into the field. But he was a major influence on me from day one and has served as a mentor to me over the years.”
Indeed, mentoring was a service Daner provided happily to the men and women who sought his advice over the course of decades.
Partnership executive director Robert Lichtman said he was an undergraduate at Queens College when he traveled to New Jersey to consult with Daner for the first time when he was thinking of going into Jewish communal work. He sought Daner’s advice again, he said, “when I was considering taking this position, and he was very helpful in laying out the pros and cons.”
Lichtman said he and Daner sat near one another at services at AABJ&D. “We traded ideas and outlooks. He was very supportive as a mentor and a friend.”
Daner was a stalwart on the board of trustees of NJJN, rarely missing a meeting even when recovering from treatments in recent years.
“Joel was always there to provide advice based on his long career serving the Jewish community,” said board president Linda Levi. “But perhaps most of all, he was a mensch.”
AABJ&D’s Rabbi Eliezer Zwickler agreed. “Joel was the quintessential mensch,” he said. “He was always a great counsel. He always saw things from a calm, clear-headed perspective…. Joel really believed in me at times when I didn’t believe in myself. He impacted thousands of lives and meant a lot to us on a personal level…. The Torah tells us to seek sage advice, and that is what Joel represented.”
Weiser became friends with Daner 15 years ago when they cochaired a search committee for a new rabbi. “Joel was a very unique guy,” he said.
“He had eternal optimism, even though he had been dealt some tough cards in life. He battled cancer and cheated death several times, but he was never bitter,” Weiser said. “He always had a smile on his face and never complained. He never wanted money. He never wanted fancy houses or clothes or that sort of thing. He genuinely shared in the joy of others. He lived a very fruitful life.”
Daner was buried Nov. 21 in Sharon Gardens Cemetery in Valhalla, NY, after a funeral service at AABJ&D.
He is survived by his wife, Selma, and their twin daughters, Linda and Ellen.