To paraphrase Voltaire’s Candide, semi-retirement is the best of all possible worlds for Rabbi Howard Alpert, who recently stepped down after 30 years as CEO of Hillel of Greater Philadelphia.
As a part-time consultant for Hillel, he’ll still play an active role in shaping the lives of impressionable college students trying to form their Jewish identity. And as a part-time consultant for Israel Elwyn, he’ll assist some 3,000 Israeli children and adults dealing with disabilities.
It also will leave him time to spend with his wife, Sarah, along with his five children and eight grandchildren.
Alpert spent time recently considering his career.
“When I look back at what’s been built in my career here, it’s not the facilities and the endowments,” said Alpert, 65, who stepped down as CEO on Jan. 1. “It’s the Jewish community built on a foundation of respect for one another.
“We tried to create Hillel as a model for a pluralistic, unified community. We may pray different and think different, but our students respect all Jews and forms of expression. Frankly, on campus, we’ve succeeded.”
Yet he concedes there are greater divides within the Jewish community than ever before. That includes decreasing acceptance of differences and increasing potential for young men and women to distance themselves from Judaism as the rates of intermarriage skyrocket and the welfare of Israel takes a back seat to what’s going on in their lives.
“The broader Jewish community has gone through significant change since I began working in the mid-’70s,” said Alpert, who grew up in New York, attended Queens College and received his rabbinic degree at Yeshiva University. “It’s more fragmented along religious and political lines.
“There’s always been a difference between the students who arrive on campus with a strong Jewish background, who are well educated, and the students who aren’t. However, the divide has grown wider than it ever was.”
And it’s become a real concern in Alpert’s eyes.
“Forty years ago, students who didn’t have a strong Jewish background but knew some of the words were committed to Israel emotionally,” he said. “They were able to relate to students with a stronger Jewish background.
“Today that divide between students has grown into a chasm. It’s very difficult for one group to relate to the other. That’s also true when comes to Israel. Forty years ago, there was an assumption that no matter how religiously involved a Jewish student was, they were committed to security of Israel and saw Israel as an important part of their Jewish identity.
“Today, you can’t make that assumption. For most Jewish students, Israel is irrelevant to their identities. And 40 years ago, it was fair to assume a student who never set foot in Hillel would still come out as a Jew. That’s no longer valid today.”
Yet Alpert remains hopeful that today’s generation will eventually see the light, thanks to programs like Birthright and other Hillel-generated activities.
“What I love most and will still be able to have is working with students asking, ‘What does Judaism mean to me?’” Alpert said. “College students are at a point in their lives where they’re asking questions not asked later in their lives.
“The questions may be sharper and the stakes to help answer them are greater, which makes Hillel more important than ever. Students challenge in ways older adults won’t. They challenge rabbis to think and rethink their own connection to Judaism.”
Alpert realized his connection was best served through Hillel, since it afforded him greater leeway than his Reform, Conservative, Orthodox and Reconstructionist counterparts.
“As a pulpit rabbi, you have to declare yourself,” he explained. “As a Hillel rabbi, I never had to declare myself. As part of the movement, I’ve had the intellectual and spiritual freedom to be the Jew I was meant to be.”
That was first shaped when Alpert began as program director at the Hillel at Queens College shortly before the start of the Yom Kippur War. From there, it was on to the University of Illinois and The Ohio State University.
While at Illinois, he was touched in a special way.
“Avital Sharansky was there to speak with students and faculty,” said Alpert of the wife of celebrated refusenik Natan Sharansky, who spent nine years in Soviet prisons. “I was the Hillel rabbi there, and she accepted my hospitality for three or four nights.
“My first child, Avi, was about 8 to 9 months old — he’s now approaching 40. She played with him and made the statement that someday she hoped to have a child with Natan.
“I was really blessed to have that experience and later to host Natan several times. He remains one of the great Jewish heroes.”
So how would Sharansky assess what has happened to today’s Jewish community?
“He’d say we have become fragmented,” Alpert said. “The difficulty we have compromising with one another and expressing love is a 21st-century tragedy. He’s worked hard to heal those rifts.”
So has Alpert, who sees his work with Elwyn Israel as the fulfillment of a quest.
“Twenty years ago, we were at a crossroads: to focus on the education of Jews in America or to build a society in Israel,” Alpert said. “With Elwyn, now I have the best of both worlds. I’ll be helping Israeli society become more inclusive and still working with students who are engaged as Jews.”
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