Local | Religion & Jewish Life

‘Recovered atheist’ and future rabbi speaks from heart on Jewish identity, healthy homes

(L-R): Linda Behr, Congregation Bet Shalom Cantor Avraham Alpert, Eileen Weizenbaum and Andrea Siemens, LMSW, at the Tucson Jewish Community Center April 23. Behr and Weizenbaum are Jewish Family & Children's Services Shalom in Every Home Healthy Family program board members. (Korene Charnofsky Cohen)

Avraham “Avi” Alpert’s spiritual journey has led him from Judaism to atheism to being an observant Jew. Now he wants to help other Jews find their own path to Jewish traditions, values and celebrations that bring families closer together. His April 23 talk at the Tucson Jewish Community Center, “The Role of Spirituality in a Healthy Household,” was part of the Shalom in Every Home Healthy Family Lecture Series, a supplementary program of Jewish Family & Children’s Services’ LEAH (Let’s End Abusive Households) program. Alpert, who has been the cantor and spiritual leader at Congregation Bet Shalom since 2012, will receive his rabbinical ordination from the Academy for Jewish Religion in Los Angeles on May 29.

“I had a strong Jewish identity in elementary school, and I took note of the religions of other kids,” Alpert said. Even though he felt connected, Alpert says he and his younger sister grew up in a liberal Jewish family where few traditions and practices were observed.

“In 10th grade I became an atheist,” Alpert said. “I believed in science and began to think about all the bad things in the world and didn’t see how G-d could be part of all this.” It wasn’t until his sophomore year as a music major at Arizona State University that he began to “recover” from atheism, after a professor got him interested in Hillel. He became involved in Hillel’s activities, made connections with other Jewish students, trained through the Hillel Teaching Scholar program and taught for a year in a religious school at a local synagogue.

After graduating college, Alpert and his future wife, Kamala, spent three months in Israel where Alpert studied at a Conservative yeshiva and sang with the choir at the Great Synagogue of Jerusalem.

It was a slow process, but Alpert said that over time, Shabbat, holidays and dietary laws became increasingly important to him. “When I was dating I was trying to figure things out — I grew up Reform and suddenly I was buying kosher meat,” he said. “Sometimes it is hard to figure out, but you can start from scratch, take ownership of the tradition and start on your own — just try it.”

“From a Jewish perspective spirituality is not just about being Jewish or how observant you are,” Alpert said.  His sister and her husband and three sons are Orthodox, and Alpert considers himself a traditional Jew. Once Alpert and his sister became observant, his parents decided to reclaim their Judaism, to the point where his father stated, “I don’t know how people don’t keep kosher.”

Sometimes Alpert is astonished by his own transformation. “In a few weeks I will be a rabbi and now people look to me for advice and learning and I find myself thinking — are you kidding, you’re asking me?”

The joy of Jewish values, traditions and celebrations can help people find family cohesiveness and cultivate spirituality, he said. For those who are not Jewish, he said the same principles can apply: look at your relationships with family, friends and community and focus on the joy of life, respect for others, sharing with family and friends and thinking of other people’s needs.

Observing nature can provide insights for family relationships. Alpert and Kamala have been married for 18 years and have three children; two sons, ages 8 and 14, and a daughter, age 11. “We should look to other creatures and see how they relate to each other, and think about how many [human] parents do not appear to care very much about their children,” he said. A pair of doves built a nest in a potted plant in his back yard, he said, and when he and his wife discovered two eggs in the nest, they decided to observe the doves more carefully.

“I was blown away by how the mother and father took care of the eggs and then the hatchlings, and after Passover the doves taught the babies how to fly,” he said.  After the babies had matured enough to fly away he wanted to take down the nest, but his wife said no, and the doves returned to raise two more hatchlings. His children loved watching the doves, he said, especially because they could get very close to the nest.

“Look at the ‘partnership’ of mother and father doves and how they take care of their young,” Alpert said. “We should take pleasure in our children and stop trying to accomplish rather than raise our children.”

Plants can also provide lessons, he said. Observe a blooming aloe vera plant as it attracts hummingbirds and bees with its beautiful flowers and later on produces seed pods. The plant expends a lot of energy to produce new aloes — are we putting enough energy into ourselves and our children?

Alpert placed great emphasis on increasing spirituality in the family by observing Shabbat and holidays. “If you only take one thing away from today’s lecture, pay attention to Shabbat,” he said. “Shabbat is a very precious and rejuvenating experience, and to get the full benefits, Shabbat should be a communal experience.”

Initially, Alpert found observing Shabbat limiting in some ways, but it also helped him to grow spiritually. He said that Shabbat teaches children that it is good to get the family together every Friday night for dinner and to be together on Saturday. “We don’t allow our kids to even take out an electronic device during meals to show them that they can get along without their electronic gadgets,” he said. “Even though the kids initially fought and complained, our 14-year-old son now says that he thinks that Shabbat is the most important thing we do together as a family.” Alpert also teaches that we should incorporate a little bit of the spirit of Shabbat into every day.

Paying attention to spiritual matters also helps couples have healthy relationships, Alpert said. “You have to be in a healthy place with your own ideas before you can have good relationships with other people. You need to work on yourself first, and if you are positive, people will be intrigued and want to be around you.

“Problems can arise in marriage when people don’t think of their spouse as a partner, but rather just a wife or just a husband,” he explained. The concept of “love thy neighbor” applies to your spouse as well as to a neighbor, friend or stranger.

Couples need to deal with issues such as anger and ego. Don’t bottle up your anger; talk about what is bothering you, Alpert recommends. “But sometimes it is better just to walk away when you are angry — cool down and hit the ‘reboot’ button,” he said. Strive to be slow to anger and quick to forgive. Observing Shabbat may also help relationships because it is an opportunity to hit the “reset button” and let go of the frustrations and negativity that happen during the week. Alpert also said one of the best pieces of advice he received at his wedding was, “Make each other laugh.”

Alpert summed up his talk with these thoughts. “The people G-d gives you in your life — how do we deal with each person? We try to lighten the burdens of others. We try to treat each other with kindness.”

Korene Charnofsky Cohen is a freelance writer and editor in Tucson.