B.C. Kowalski/City Pages
Rabbi Dan Danson has been Mount Sinai’s rabbi for nearly 30 years. He will leave the congregation in June.
The Mount Sinai Jewish Congregation has had one rabbi for nearly 30 years. In June, Rabbi Dan Danson’s run will end when he and his family moves to Philadelphia. As the longest-serving rabbi at the Wausau congregation, replacing him will be no easy task.
When Danson started at the synagogue in 1988, he brought a stability that the Jewish congregation hadn’t previously experienced. Since its founding in 1914, the congregation was led by rabbis “who came for two years and left,” Danson says. “That was a pattern for a long time.” Only a handful of rabbis stayed for much longer.
Wausau can be a tough sell for someone fresh out of rabbinical school, Danson explains. The major school for Reform Judaism, the denomination of Mount Sinai, is in New York, and attracting a fresh graduate, from a New York lifestyle, to Wausau will be challenging.
The congregation currently consists of 85 families (roughly 200 members) spread out throughout central Wisconsin and as far north as Minocqua—the sparseness a result of declining Jewish populations in smaller communities. That wasn’t always the case, Danson says. Many Jewish residents once lived in Wisconsin small towns and operated businesses there. Starting in the 1970s, though, most of those families sent their sons and daughters to college in major cities, and that generation simply didn’t come back, Danson says.
As the Jewish populations declined in this part of the state, Mount Sinai eventually became the main congregation for the region. Beth Israel in Stevens Point, for example, closed in 1985 and is now the headquarters of the Portage County Historical Society.
The Wausau area wasn’t a tough sell for Danson, though he hadn’t expected to be at the congregation quite so long. Danson, who loves the outdoors and grew up in Ottawa, thought Wausau the perfect balance between metropolitan living and having access to the outdoors. His wife, Julie Luks, is a physician with Marshfield Clinic.
The congregation will have a tough time saying goodbye to Rabbi Danson, says president Barb Rothweiler. Danson has been at the helm since she moved to Wausau 20 years ago and he is the only rabbi her children have known. “He’s been involved not only with their Jewish education but with many other aspects of their lives,” Rothweiler says.
One of Rabbi Danson’s biggest contributions was building the synagogue’s current location on Randolph Street, says member Peter Rotter. When Danson entered the role nearly 30 years ago, worshippers met in a tiny structure with no parking in downtown Wausau. The congregation itself has changed in those 30 years, Rotter says. Its members now are younger, newer to the area, and more geographically spread out. “Rabbi Dan holds all of this together,” Rotter says.
One thing in favor of Mount Sinai’s search for a new rabbi: Instead of going straight from college to rabbinical school, many rabbinical candidates today have taken time off in between, or entering the profession as a career change, Danson says.
For Mount Sinai, that could mean a more diverse set of candidates who are open to the smaller-city lifestyle.