Hip-hop rabbi to bring a new beat to Hillel at Stanford

Daniel Silverstein is everything one could want in a Hillel rabbi. He meditates, he raps epic hip-hop rhymes, he dug ditches with rabbinical students in El Salvador. And he teaches Torah, too.


Rabbi Daniel Silverstein

Next month, Silverstein starts work at Hillel at Stanford, filling the spot that opened last year when Rabbi Mychal Copeland left after 11 years to direct InterfaithFamily Bay Area.


Silverstein, 36, would seem to be quite the catch. Before scoring the Hillel gig, the London native had already begun to shine in the Jewish firmament. Last month, he made “36 Under 36,” New York Jewish Week’s annual list of young up-and-coming leaders.

Silverstein’s title at Hillel at Stanford — which is there to serve Stanford’s estimated 700 undergraduate and 1,100 post-graduate students who are Jewish — is director of Jewish Life and Learning.

Among his duties will be designing and running educational programs, planning Shabbat and holiday events, overseeing kashrut and conducting campus interfaith outreach. And, as he puts it, “infusing Hillel’s program with the creative arts.”

That won’t be hard for him. Silverstein is a poet and rapper, with his own YouTube channel. One clip, “I Wake Up” (http://youtu.be/UnP8Q4etg7Y) is a spiritual and surprisingly sophisticated neo-noir tale shot on the streets of New York.

His songs, he says, contain “my most deeply held reflections about Torah, relationships and everything I care about. Each poem and song riffs off ancient Jewish stories and wisdom as well as more contemporary influences. For me, poetry and song are the most natural and honest ways of sharing the beauty and depth of Torah.”

Poster for a Muslim-Jewish event in England features image of Silverstein (left).

Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, Hillel at Stanford’s executive director, is happy to welcome Silverstein. She says she was taken by his “unique background and talents,” recalling that during an early interview a student asked him to talk about his time at Burning Man.

“He provided this extraordinary overview of this amazing experience he had — creating a Shabbat tent at Burning Man,” Eisenberg says. “It’s exciting for Hillel at Stanford to bring this interesting mix of progressive yet traditional rabbi to campus. He really can relate to the primary questions people have about what Judaism has to teach us about living in the world. That to me was the clincher.”

Silverstein has experience, too. He served as director of the Hillel house at his alma mater, Cambridge University in England, from 2003 to 2005. Then, in 2007 he co-founded and lived in London’s first Moishe House. There he was responsible for Shabbat/holiday programming and raising funds. And throwing the best Jewish parties in town.

“The house was recognized as a key hub for London’s grassroots Jewish renaissance,” he says. “We won several awards for our success in building a thriving community that powerfully impacted upon young Jews.”

Silverstein recently was ordained at Yeshivat Chovevei Torah in Riverdale, New York, after also having studied at various yeshivas in Israel. He will not be leading High Holy Days services. Eisenberg will lead the Reform/Reconstructionist services and Patricia Karlin-Neumann, Stanford’s senior associate dean for religious life, will lead Conservative services.

Silverstein will arrive at the normally sedate Stanford campus at a time of potential tensions. Earlier this year, after much debate, the Stanford student senate passed an Israel divestment bill, despite vigorous opposition by pro-Israel students and faculty.

During his Cambridge days, Silverstein saw similar anti-Israel rancor. However, he says the atmosphere in England is much less sympathetic toward Israel than it is in the United States. While he was working on a degree in political science at Cambridge, some faculty members castigated him because he wouldn’t toe an anti-Israel line.

Rabbi Daniel Silverstein (center) performs at the Rise Festival in London with his Muslim-Jewish hip-hop band Lines of Faith.

“There is unfortunately some bad feeling between Jewish students and other minority groups,” he says. “I’m hoping to make a positive impact and break down stereotypes. I’ve done hundreds of workshops with Jewish and Muslim students in England.”

Brought up in London in a secular Jewish household, Silverstein says he drifted away from his Jewish identity when he first got to college, but later returned to it full force.

He has other interests as well. He practices and teaches meditation. He co-founded Lines of Faith, a London-based Muslim-Jewish hip-hop and poetry collective designed to promote better relations between Muslims and Jews. He also ran hip-hop workshops as a vehicle for self-expression.

But the rabbinate called to him, too.

“At Moishe House I was often teaching and facilitating community events,” he recalls. “People started calling me ‘rabbi’ as a joke. And because my job was in educational work, I realized there were gaps in my Jewish knowledge, and the only way to fill it was to go to a yeshiva.”

While studying in Jerusalem, he met Rabbi Avi Weiss, founder of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah. He convinced Silverstein to visit the campus in Riverdale. That was all it took. The yeshiva “was exactly what I’d been looking for,” Silverstein says.

Now that he is ordained, Silverstein is making the trek west with his wife Karin, and their infant son, Yonah.

Silverstein says Stanford reminds him of Cambridge in that both campuses have developed a longstanding culture uniquely their own.

“People are very proud of their [Stanford] identity,” he observes. “When I visited Hillel at Stanford, I saw that [culture] was well integrated. I want to bring opportunities to connect to Judaism to every corner of the campus.”

Rabbi Daniel Silverstein’s videos, poetry and other works can be accessed at www.danielraphaelsilverstein.com.

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.