Rabbi Utley “very excited” to have an opportunity with Camp Wise | Local News
Rabbi Dan Utley will fulfill a dream when he returns home to lead Camp Wise as director this summer.
Utley, a former Beachwood resident who is now an associate rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, was named camp director of the Mandel Jewish Community Center in Claridon Township Jan. 31.
“I am very happy to be working with the JCC team,” Utley told the Cleveland Jewish News Feb. 1 via Zoom from Dallas. “I was very impressed with the senior management, the camp committee, everyone I met there at the JCC was exceptional. It was a dream of mine to work in the camp as a rabbi. I am also very happy to be returning to Cleveland.
After a three-month search, Utley, 39, has been selected to replace Rachel Felber, who announced in October 2021 that she would step down in June after leading the camp since 2016.
“Growing up in Cleveland, many of my Jewish friends summered at Camp Wise and told incredible stories about their time at camp,” Utley said.
As a child, Utley attended the Union for Reform Judaism Goldman Union Camp Institute in Zionsville, Ind. He said, “There are many similarities between camp communities and Camp Wise has shown throughout its history the importance of strengthening Cleveland community bonds.
“This role represents a tremendous opportunity to shape the next generation of young people who will come back and invest in the Cleveland community and grow to be the next leaders of Jewish Cleveland,” Utley said. “That’s one of the best attributes of Camp Wise is that it strengthens Cleveland and has had an incredible streak of lay and pro leaders over the years.”
Gilon Rubanenko, COO of the Mandel JCC, and Loren Chylla, chair of the Camp Wise committee, both congratulated Utley, who they said was one of the first candidates to apply for the job.
“We had a number of people we spoke to and at the end of the day he rose to the top of our picks,” Rubanenko told CJN on January 31.
He said that Utley went through an extensive interview process during which he met with more than 30 people, either in a group setting or in an individual setting, encompassing those on the professional side, the historical camp side, from the side of the volunteer lay leaders and the families of the camp.
“We have a very broad perspective – not only are we looking at it from the perspective of the JCC, but of everyone in the community,” Rubanenko said. “This is a community hire. Although this is the JCC’s location for Camp Wise, we believe this is an important role in the community, and we really want to hear everyone’s feelings and thoughts.
Chylla called the search process “impressive.”
“We touch so many families, so many organizations, so many groups that it was important for him to have this exposure,” Chylla told CJN on Feb. 1. “And all the feedback from everyone I exposed it to was very positive, very good.”
Chylla and Utley knew each other when Chylla was a member of Anshe Chesed Fairmount Temple in Beachwood and Utley worked there from 2006 to 2010.
“He was in my temple for a while and he took my children on a retreat for Fairmount Temple to Camp Wise for Shabbatons, that’s how he remembered me and reached out (about the opening),” Chylla said.
Utley said he was in touch with Chylla “because Loren and I had a relationship since I was a songmaster at Fairmount Temple years ago and his children were in youth services and the religious school there.
“Just remembering these connections to different eras of Cleveland’s Jewish community is really special,” Utley said. “To be able to be a part of it and contribute to it is truly an honor.”
He spoke enthusiastically about Cleveland’s close-knit Jewish community, which numbers about 80,800 people, mostly on the east side of Cleveland, according to the Jewish Federation of Cleveland’s 2011 demographic study. He said Dallas has a Jewish population of between 70,000 and 80,000, but it’s more geographically dispersed due to the way the city has developed.
“But it’s been a wonderful place for us to raise our children and live here, and being part of the Temple Emanu-El community has been such a gift for the past six years,” Utley said.
Utley and his wife, Rachel, a Philadelphia native and Jewish educator, and their three children, Eitan, 7, Judah, 4, and Benji, 1, will move to the Cleveland area in the spring.
Since taking the job at Camp Wise, Utley said he’s heard from friends from the East Coast to the West Coast.
“It speaks to the layers of generational relationships – the wide net that Camp Wise throws around our country,” he said. “I’ve heard from people literally on both coasts and all over the state of Ohio and area who are sending their kids to camp this summer and are very excited about it. I think it reminded me of what I love most about Cleveland, it’s all the different layers of relationships that exist there and how caring and connected the Jewish community in Cleveland is.
As Associate Rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, Utley is responsible for growing and engaging youth and adolescent communities, outreach to young adults in their 20s and 30s, and interfaith family inclusion. He has led initiatives to help the Jewish community affirm and welcome people who identify as LGBTQ+.
“Dan fits the bill from the perspective of his community involvement in Dallas to how he interacts with young people in this community and the things he does to create a sense of belonging,” Chylla said. “Through my conversations with him, that really came out and everything he does will benefit the entire camping community.”
Rubanenko said he sees the hire as offering endless possibilities for Camp Wise.
“(Utley) also came with a depth of experience, not just in the camping world but also clearly as a rabbi who brings a depth of Jewish experience to camp,” he said. “It will help us grow in the future because of the diversity of his experience and the way he engaged not only with his community in Dallas…but with all the communities in which he was involved and (along with) his Connections He has deep connections here in Cleveland and we believe he will really help strengthen and grow our team here on the field and move Camp Wise forward for the long term.
Utley, who will begin his transition into the role of director in early spring and be fully integrated when camp begins in June, enjoys playing trombone, guitar and banjo, and will bring those talents to the Camp Wise community, according to the communicated.
He graduated from Beachwood High School in 2001 and the College of Wooster, where he earned a dual bachelor’s degree in music education – public school emphasis and physical. He was ordained in 2016 from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, where he also earned a master’s degree in Jewish education.
Utley celebrated his bar mitzvah at Temple-Tifereth Israel in Beachwood. He was a camper and staff member at the Goldman Union Camp Institute and was a year-round staff member at URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, California, and faculty at URJ Greene Family Camp in Texas, where he supported campers and mentored advisors for over 15 summers.
Rubanenko said that when searching for a new North America-wide director, they were “looking for a special candidate.”
Rubanenko and Chylla are convinced they have found that special candidate in Utley.
Editor’s note: Loren Chylla is a member of the board of directors of the Cleveland Jewish Publication Company.