Danny Kraft came in full force and hit the ground running to bring fresh ideas and programs to the children and families as Beth Sholom’s Director of Education and Youth Engagement.
I took some time to get to know him, and I’m excited to see what innovative experiences are in store for us!
Holly: Tell us what/who inspired you to work in the Jewish field.
Danny: I didn’t plan to work in Jewish education, and after college I became a public school special education teacher in Tulsa, Oklahoma, through Teach for America. But when the local conservative synagogue needed a full-time educator, I was asked to step in. That was four years ago, and the rest is history!
Holly: Did you find Memphis or did Memphis find you?
Danny: Memphis found me! I followed my fiancée here – we both finished our master’s degrees in the spring of 2018, and she took a job in Memphis teaching at the St. George’s School. I came to town without a job, and we showed up at Beth Sholom for Shabbat services, not knowing that they were looking for a director of education. Brittany and I were both impressed and delighted with the warm welcome we received here.
Holly: We know that it’s getting more and more difficult to keep kids and teens involved and coming to synagogue regularly; as the director of education and youth engagement, describe some ways you are trying to address this at Beth Sholom.
Danny: My philosophy in general, when it comes to education and youth engagement, is to stick to the basics, and to do that as well as possible. I don’t think we need to reinvent the wheel to keep kids and teens involved in Jewish life. Instead, if we build a strong community filled with authentic relationships and come together within that community for fun programs and meaningful, authentic learning, the involvement will take care of itself.
Holly: What do you hope to achieve in your role here? Are there any out-of-the-box, experiential programs that are in the works?
Danny: I’m really excited about some of the spirituality programming we’re putting together: things like authentic and accessible Jewish meditation, and mindful hikes infused with Jewish teachings. But most of all I hope to build strong, lasting relationships within the Beth Sholom community.
Holly: Describe your best “Memphis moment.”
Danny: I love riding my bike to Beth Sholom, on the Shelby Farms Greenline and along the Wolf River, seeing beautiful birds along the water at sunset.
Holly: Tell us about a time that truly made an impact on you; a time that you felt proud to be working with kids.
Danny: I’m grateful that there are so many moments to choose from! My students are constantly impressing me with their creativity and compassion. It might be a cliché, but every time I learn something new from a child, I’m thankful that this is the work I get to do. I just got back from spending some time at Camp Ramah in the Rockies, a Jewish outdoor adventure camp in the Colorado mountains. One of the things that comes to mind was seeing young campers on a mountain biking trip support another camper who kept falling down. Their compassion and encouragement was a beautiful example of the kind of Jewish community I hope to foster.
Holly: What does free time look like for you?
Danny: I spend most of my free time reading or writing, or else enjoying the outdoors. The biggest downside to life in Memphis is that there isn’t much hiking or rock climbing, but you can find me often in Memphis Rox, which is a great substitute.
Holly: What do you think makes the Memphis Jewish community unique?
Danny: Memphis in general has the amenities of a bigger city, but the feeling of a smaller town. And you could say the same for the Jewish community. In most American cities, there isn’t really “a” Jewish community, but actually a number of different Jewish communities living side by side. In Memphis I’ve found the diversity and the opportunities you’d expect from a larger Jewish community, but this is a place where it still makes sense to talk about one Jewish community, which we’re all a part of. There’s a balance between Jewish unity and Jewish diversity here, which I think is rare and special.
Holly: What is your ultimate Shabbat meal?
Danny: My favorite Shabbat dinner probably involves pasta with a homemade tomato sauce, and homemade ice cream for dessert. An ice cream maker, alongside the official Ben and Jerry’s home cookbook, was one of our best kitchen purchases, and has really come in handy during the Memphis summer!
Holly: What is something most people wouldn’t know about you?
Danny: A lot of people are surprised to find out that I failed 10th grade and dropped out of high school when I was 15.
Danny is a vibrant, dedicated and innovative leader; most of all, he is real. There is no “putting-on-a-show” mentality with him, and that is a hard thing to find these days. He does this job because he cares. In a world where we have to work hard to teach children the true meaning of being a mensch, what better person to do it than Danny – a mensch himself. As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing more important than that.