Congregation Bet Shalom will celebrate the recent ordination of Rabbi Hazzan Avraham “Avi” Alpert next month at a gala event. Alpert says he’s both humbled by the attention and excited because the event supports his mission of reaching out to the entire Jewish community.
Alpert’s personal journey began when he was a child growing up in a family that was actively Jewish but not particularly observant. In high school he believed in science and considered himself an atheist. His road back to Judaism began when he was a music major at Arizona State University, and a professor encouraged him to join Hillel. Many steps on this road brought him more involvement in Jewish observances and traditions, eventually leading him to become a cantor. He served as cantor for synagogues in Sacramento and Las Vegas before being hired by Bet Shalom in Tucson in 2012.
“It is a journey of growth that continues for our congregation and for Avi,” says Andy Kunsberg, a past president of Bet Shalom. “I was vice president of Bet Shalom when we got the ball rolling to find a part-time rabbi, but we ended up hiring a cantor, and it was a wonderful decision. Avi has become the soul of our congregation.” Kunsberg, his wife, Linda, and 18 other members of Bet Shalom traveled to Los Angeles for Alpert’s ordination, which took place on May 29 at the Stephen Wise Temple.
Alpert studied at the Academy for Jewish Religion, California, a transdenominational institution for training rabbis, cantors, chaplains, and other Jewish community leaders. The program involved two years of commuting to Los Angeles for classes held Sunday through Tuesday, and another year to research and write a thesis. Meanwhile, he continued to serve as Bet Shalom’s spiritual leader. The decision to take another big step on his journey had not come lightly.
“I give special thanks to my teachers [at AJRCA] and to Rev. Dr. Norman Rubin because he encouraged me to go for the education to become a rabbi,” says Alpert. “My initial reaction to the idea of going to school while also working was ‘How could I do this to my wife and children?’ But my wife said, ‘Absolutely you are going to do this and take the three years to do it.’ She said the timing for the family was good since the children were not too young nor were they yet teenagers.”
Rubin, also a Bet Shalom past president, and his wife, Kathy McGuire, have been members of the congregation since its founding 34 years ago. Both had a role in Alpert’s decision to become a rabbi.
“There was a generous donation left to the congregation and we were part of a committee to determine how best to use the funds,” McGuire says. “We discussed several ideas, but after all the discussion it was voted to send our cantor to rabbinical school.”
“His education was a team effort of Avi, his family and our congregation,” says Rubin. Both Rubin and McGuire say attending Alpert’s ordination was special because he is so important to them, and has done so much for the congregation.
“Avi brings such enthusiasm and spirituality to our congregation,” McGuire says. “He encourages people to get involved at any level of Judaism they feel comfortable with, and he is grateful for whatever involvement they choose.”
Sarah Frieden, executive director for Bet Shalom, says Alpert has brought many positive changes to the congregation: the membership has tripled since he joined the congregation, and he has instituted policies of no set membership dues and no charge for High Holiday tickets, increased educational programs for all ages, and reached out with educational programs in the Tucson community.
“I think that Avi’s coming on board is the best thing that has happened to the congregation,” says Frieden, who has been with Bet Shalom for all of its 34 years. “He is wise, has innovative ideas and brings a natural excitement to his work.”
Alpert says the ordination has made a difference.
“I didn’t expect to feel any different after being ordained as a rabbi,” he says. “I was already functioning as the spiritual leader of Bet Shalom, but I noticed changes as I continued my learning.
“People seem to think of me differently now. It is a good feeling, only surprising. There seems to be a higher level of comfort on the part of the congregants just knowing that even though I have been their hazzan and spiritual leader, it makes a difference that now I am officially a rabbi.”
Alpert’s wife, Kamala, his three children, and his parents attended the ordination. Along with thanking family, teachers and his congregation, Alpert made a special point in his speech. “I must confess, my most important title is not rabbi, it’s not hazzan, it’s Abba. My own
children, Ezra, Maiella, and Solomon, are the ones who have ordained me with this title ‘Abba,’ and I intend to live up to that calling with all of its responsibilities and duties.”
Anne Lowe, president of Bet Shalom, also attended the ordination ceremony. She and her husband, David, have been members for 12 years.
“Those of us who went to the ordination went because we are all very proud of Avi and we wanted to let him know how much we appreciate him,” says Lowe. “We had a great time there and the ceremony was very beautiful and moving. We joked that he was first in his class — but it was because his name starts with the letter ‘a,’ and they went in alphabetical order.”
Lowe recalls being “kind of frightened” of the rabbi at the Orthodox synagogue in upstate New York her family attended, because he would yell at the congregation. As she got older she found out not all rabbis are like that.
“Avi is a people’s rabbi, and he is down-to-earth, approachable and very learned,” Lowe says. “He brings a youthful vivacity to our congregation and he genuinely cares about everyone. We also love his wife and children.”
Bet Shalom is a very participatory congregation, and Alpert insists that it does not operate any differently whether or not a rabbi is there. Many times members of the congregation lead services or give sermons. “I like to say that my role is that of a police officer, a fire fighter and a paramedic,” he says. “I’m there to help with challenges and conflict — to both avoid and resolve conflicts. That is how I think of myself, as a facilitator.”
But congregation members think Alpert is more than just a “facilitator.”
“Thanks to Avi there are now more of us in the congregation that participate,” says Kunsberg. “I am 68 and I just had my bar mitzvah a year ago. Avi inspired me to learn to read Hebrew and to learn more about Judaism.”
The gala event celebrating Alpert’s ordination will take place on Nov. 4 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center and will include cocktails, dinner and musical entertainment. “This celebration is the culmination of our congregation’s desire to have our cantor become our rabbi,” says Kunsberg. “But it also celebrates Bet Shalom and the positive transformation we have made over the years.”
Looking to the future, Alpert wants to do more outreach. “My thesis was about the importance of the community and the resuscitation of the American Jewish community because many Jews are simply not interested in Jewish involvement,” he says. “I want to try to build community relationships and help people understand that we need to help each other.
“Everyone has the magic inside of them, you don’t need to be a rabbi to have that spirit, and I provide the encouragement for people to achieve their goals.”
The gala begins at 6:45 p.m. on Saturday, Nov. 4 at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, Tickets are $125 per person. Vegetarian meals are available on request. RSVP by Oct. 16 to Frieden at 577-1171 or
Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.