Daniel J. Johnson was born at the foot of the Rocky Mountains near Provo, Utah. When he was around four his family moved to northern Wisconsin, where he was raised. Solon Springs is a small vacation town that sits next to St. Croix Lake-right where the St. Croix River begins. The town hovered in population between six hundred in the winter to as many as a thousand in the summer.
Of his religious upbringing Johnson says that by the time he was on the scene his parents weren't involved with institutional religion. "My father was what's called a 'north-woodsman.' He believed that God was in nature. My mother was a disaffected Roman Catholic." She'd been divorced and had had Carol, his 'half-sister,' from that marriage. So for most of her life she'd say, 'the Catholic Church doesn't like me much.' She got involved once Daniel became involved.
Johnson was brought up in the local Lutheran church, and baptized at the age of ten. "I was theologically curious," he says. Once his godmother Edith, who he describes as a really wonderful person, asked him, 'What are you going to be when you grow up?' And I said, 'a theologian.' She exclaimed, 'A theologian? What does that mean?' And I said, 'I'm not sure yet, but I'll find out when I get there!'"
"Pretty much everything I've done," Johnson says, "has had something to do with religion and spirituality." He attended the University of Wisconsin-Superior as a music major, studying voice, and was exposed to all kinds of sacred and other music. "But I had to escape that part of the country, so I joined the Navy." After basic training, Johnson was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Philadelphia. "I was studying to be a psychiatric technician," he recalls, "but I washed out of that school because I got depressed. I couldn't deal with the amount of mental illness I was encountering." Ironically in the 1980's he became a mental-health professional. He spent much of his career in mental health specializing in HIV/AIDS services, though not always directly in patient care.
"I went to Temple University and in 1981 earned my B.A. in Religion." Among others, his teachers included Leonard Swidler, who specializes in inter-religious dialogue, and Franklin Littel, a Christian Holocaust scholar. On occasion, Johnson says, he would cross paths with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement), and studied with some of his students.
After working as a medical secretary, Johnson studied at the Lutheran Theological Seminary of Philadelphia (LTSP), in 1986 earning a Master of Arts in Religion (MAR) with an emphasis in Practical Theology. "Which means I was trained to do administration and counseling." That's how he got back into mental health. Using his background as a Hospital Corpsman (Medic) and seminary training, he landed his first job as an addictions counselor. In addition to his position as a Public Health Program Analyst-which he did for 15 years-Johnson worked as an HIV counselor, as well as social worker in Philadelphia Department of Health. He retired five years ago.
Of his decision to convert to Judaism, Johnson said, "I had glimmers of my future when I was ten years old." While living in the country he attended the Presbyterian Church. But once his family moved into the village he began attending the Lutheran Church. "One time, we were reading the story of Jacob and the Ladder, and it hit me: It was so cool! It's a great story. And I asked my Sunday-School teacher, when we were discussing that particular story, 'Why aren't we Jewish?' After she 'recovered' from the question, her answer was, 'Because we believe in Jesus.'" Johnson says that much of his life was spent exploring the question, 'What does it mean that we follow Jesus?' He relates: "It's a great question! Over the years, it's been a real quest." In 2011 he received a Master of Sacred Theology degree, also from LTSP.
"Then I responded to an internal conflict," Johnson recalls. "For Christians, Jesus is the one with all the answers. He's 'the savior.' I'm a Storyteller. So I've read many stories. In Judaism, you constantly have the stories, the arguments, the questions, the answers, more questions, more answers." Christianity was lopsided.... You end up with a conundrum. "To me it was circular logic." Johnson realized he could no longer credibly call himself a Christian, saying that he gave up belief in Jesus as God: "Jesus as Rabbi, Yes! Jesus as God? Not so much." During his religious explorations, Johnson encountered Judaism as an adult.
During a class at Starr King School for Ministry, one of the Unitarian-Universalist seminaries, his friend Ed Greenlee was taking a class online that included visiting various faith communities for a worship service. One of the places they visited was Leyv Ha-Ir. "It's like I walked in and I just resonated with it!"
Last year over the summer Johnson read a great deal on Judaism. He began attending services regularly, and participated in the High Holy Days services. "After that I had some talks with Rabbi Julie. I withdrew from the Society of St. Francis (of which I was a member) and Episcopal Church, and met with Rabbi Julie regularly from September to May. "I became interested in Judaism a long time ago... I've always been interested in Jewish thought and culture. It's always been an important part of my spiritual journey."
In May, Daniel J. Johnson successfully met with a Beyt Din and entered the Mikveh at Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El, near City Line Avenue. Among friends and members of the Congregation, he was then given the name Daniyyel Ya'akov Ben Avraham v' Sarah by Rabbi Julie. He calls it a "wonderful experience of rebirth and renewal."