Rabbi Alison Adler is the spiritual leader Temple B’nai Abraham in Beverly. She has led the synagogue for the last 10 years. Rabbi Adler grew up in the Chicago suburb of Highland Park, and went to Kenyon College in the late 1980s. She says that environment – a beautiful small-town community with a love of learning and poetry, creativity and supportiveness – had a big influence on her life. Rabbi Adler lives in Beverly with her husband, Chuck, and 10-year-old son, Leo.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up and your family background?
My family was very assimilated and Judaism was not central to our daily lives. We did celebrate the major holidays and I became a Bat Mitzvah in 1980. It was probably more of a social event than a spiritual one for me. But not long ago, I watched the video of my Bat Mitzvah and was amazed to hear the rabbi announce to the congregation that I could, if I liked, become a rabbi! I barely noticed it at the time, because I had no interest in such a career. But it had been less than a decade since Sally Priesand had been ordained as America’s first female rabbi and our rabbi was a mensch who wanted to be sure that we girls all knew it was an option.
The greatest Jewish influences on me, by far, were my grandmothers, Tillie and Edythe. They were both smart women who never had the chance to go to college. They were full of generosity, hope, and love. When I was a little girl, Grandma Edythe went on a trip to Israel and returned with the most wonderful gifts for me, which gave me the idea that Israel was a wondrous place. Grandma Tillie often told stories about being one of nine kids growing up poor and Jewish in Brooklyn and when she described the aroma of her mother’s fresh-baked challah cooling on the windowsill, I knew just what it smelled like. Incidentally, my grandmothers bought me my first tallit/prayer shawl – they were feminists!
I have to say my parents and older brother, Matt, were surprised and maybe a bit skeptical when I first told them I was becoming a rabbi. But now they sign into Zoom every Friday night to join us for services.
You went to Kenyon College and studied psychology and earned your master’s in counseling from Northwestern. Did you expect to become a therapist?
I did, because I wanted to help teenage girls. My own adolescence had its challenges, and I felt strongly that I had a lot to offer teens on issues related to self-esteem and body image. Of course, as I learned more about Judaism, these interests began to merge with the wisdom of our traditions. In Philadelphia, I created Rosh Hodesh groups for adolescent girls with contemporary themes, which became the foundation of a national program. I also co-created a conference on Food, Body Image and Judaism with the Renfrew Center, which specializes in treating eating disorders. I’ve always been drawn to Jewish teachings on embodied spirituality. We experience the divine through our bodies, our senses, and our actions, and Judaism can help cultivate well-being, wonder, and gratitude in our lives.
You lived in Israel and taught English. How did that period influence you and your decision to become a rabbi?
After I finished my master’s in psychology, I went to Israel to figure out what I wanted to do and to be. I moved to Arad, which back in the 1990s was a very small town on the border between the Negev and the Judean Desert. It was glorious, exotic, invigorating. I used to go running on the trails outside of town and the camels would come trotting up next to me. This was the first time I lived my life to the rhythms of the Hebrew calendar. I began to understand the sweet nourishment that Shabbat can bring, the gratitude for life’s natural blessings that you get during Sukkot, and the exhilaration of Simchat Torah when we literally dance with joy to celebrate the gift of Torah. Later I lived in a small town near the Lebanon border and worked with kids from very poor families. There I saw a very different part of Israel. I often spent Shabbat with friends in the ancient city of Tzfat (Safed) or hiking in the hills. In short, I fell in love with Israel and with being Jewish and destiny took over from there. It was also during that time that I met women rabbinical students for the first time.
What’s the most rewarding part of being a rabbi?
It’s an honor to be a rabbi, every single day. It’s an honor to form unique and often intimate relationships with wonderful people. It’s an honor to walk with them through lifecycle moments – births, weddings, b’nai mitzvah celebrations, illnesses and funerals – which are also an opening to help people connect with the beauty of Jewish tradition. I particularly love standing on the bimah with b’nai mitzvah students after having spent a year studying and making friends with them, celebrating each as a precious, unique individual. It’s a rabbi’s job to challenge people to live by the values and wisdom that have guided and supported us for so many generations. What greater honor can you imagine?
You were part of the first class of the new rabbinical school at Hebrew College in Newton. How was that experience?
Well, it was incredibly rewarding, but also a little scary. There were 17 of us in that first class in 2003 and we were extremely determined students who loved one another very much (and stay in close contact to this day.) But at that time, there were no guaranteed internships or jobs and we really had no idea if anyone would want to hire us. But I found tremendous mentors in Rabbis Art Green, Nehemia Polan, Ebn Leader, and Sharon Cohen Anisfeld (now president of Hebrew College) among many others. The works of Art Green have had a tremendous influence on me – particularly the mystical tradition and neo-Hassidism, the notion that the Divine flows through everyone and everything and therefore every moment is an opportunity to experience holiness. This approach to life can shape us individually and collectively and, hopefully, inspire us to create a better world.
You’re the first female rabbi at Temple B’nai Abraham and you’re starting your tenth year there. How has the experience been and how would describe the congregation?
About seven years after I got to TBA, one of our elders told me that, when I first arrived, he’d had trouble calling me ‘Rabbi’ – not because he was against women rabbis but because it was just so foreign to him. But he was impressed that I respected the synagogues’ local traditions and I convinced him that I did indeed know how to daven and to teach. He came to appreciate the qualities a female can bring to the job. In fact, many of TBA’s elders have been among the most supportive of my work and the way I try to lead the community. And I have to say, our community is the very definition of heimish. We try to make it a warm, welcoming home for everyone.
What do you love most about being a rabbi?
Kids! I love working with all ages, but getting on the floor with kids and creating hands-on, active programs is so fun and rewarding! For instance, we have a community garden and grow food, which we donate, and flowers and other plants that we use for holidays. Just recently, our Shavuot celebration included taking the kids out to the garden to plant seeds. It was such a joy to see their joy as they turned the soil and laughed and joked with one another – and then ate ice cream. Another passion of mine is reaching out to other faith communities, making friends, finding out how much we have in common and working together for the good of all. I also serve on the Beverly Human Rights Committee, the Beverly Multifaith Coalition, and am active in interfaith environmental groups.
This has been a challenging year for all because of covid. It has upended so much of traditional synagogue life. As a rabbi, have you dealt with these challenges?
We all had to reinvent just about everything we do! I had to learn a tremendous amount about technology, and I’m still learning, because we’re going to continue to use it. I believe it will in fact enhance community connections. From the start, we’ve tried to strike a balance between old and new. For instance, we found that there was no alternative to using formal recordings for our High Holiday services in 2020, but I was able to present my sermons up-close and personal. I’ve also introduced more mindfulness to our meetings and services that help us connect across physical space.
There have been increased struggles with depression and anxiety across age groups, but especially among our teens and young adults. I think the trauma of this pandemic – and everything going on in the world – will reverberate for some time. Our communities need to think about our role in supporting people, and how Judaism can help us all build resilience.
Through it all, I have been so inspired by how many people of all ages have volunteered to help. They created and delivered gift bags for almost every holiday, repeatedly reached out to every person by phone, helped people adjust to new technology, and much more.
What’s your message to congregants and fellow Jews who have been isolated during this time?
You are not alone. The entire world is going through this trauma and transformation right along with you. It’s easy to forget that loneliness and isolation were already major challenges in our society even before the pandemic, but covid exacerbated these problems and laid them bare. Our tradition has always emphasized that each and every life is precious, and that we are all connected. Now, hopefully, more people are coming to understand that with effort and determination, we can make things better for everyone. Because we need each other and we always will.