Rabbi Adam Allenberg, M.A.J.E. ‘07
Senior Director, Office of Recruitment and Admissions
Please tell us about your Jewish journey and your journey to HUC-JIR.
I’m originally from Memphis, TN, which is an important place in rooting my Jewish identity. Even though I’ve been out of the South for a very long time, I still see myself as a Southern Jew, and later as a Midwestern Jew. I live on the Coast and sometimes people make assumptions about me and my experience, but I’m very much a Southerner and Midwesterner at heart. I was a third-generation Memphian Jew, and now I have cousins who are fourth and fifth generation, so we’ve been there a long time. From what I can tell, a large portion of my family was already Reform coming from Europe, and most of my family came before the turn of the last century, around the 1880’s. I grew up bouncing around the Midwest, and being Jewish was a big part of it. Anytime we moved it was always to a larger, more engaged, better resourced Jewish community. We moved from Memphis to Milkwaukee to Detroit, and then I went to college in Madison, Wisconsin.
I grew up going to Camp Interlaken JCC in the north woods of Wisconsin and was involved with NFTY. By the time I got to college I was exploring Judaism way beyond my earlier experience. I spent a lot of time learning to pray in as many settings as I could. I studied with every rabbi who came to campus, from Renewal to Orthodox and back again. I studied at a yeshiva while studying abroad at Hebrew University, which was hugely rewarding and gave me more confidence as a Jewish person beyond my own upbringing. Being able to navigate Jerusalem and its synagogues and customs felt really rewarding. For me, college was about preparing for rabbinical school; I was a Hebrew and Philosophy major, and a Jewish Studies and Religious Studies minor. I had known I wanted to go to rabbinical school at HUC since I was 16, and I enrolled straight out of college. At 22 I moved to Jerusalem during the second Intifada and had an amazing, but challenging, year at HUC-JIR/Jerusalem.
What made you decide to return to HUC-JIR in a professional capacity?
My wife Lauren and I knew we wanted to move to a big city. My wife is from Los Angeles and I went to school here and have a lot of friends and professional connections here. I was interviewing for jobs but wasn’t finding anything that excited me. Dr. Joshua Holo, Dean of the LA Campus, heard I was in town and invited me for breakfast. He told me I should apply for this job, and I thought “that sounds interesting, it’s a different kind of work and I do love the College.” I’ve loved my career so I knew I wouldn’t have trouble helping others pursue this as their career. I’ve learned a ton over the past 7 plus years that I still use today, and the job just keeps getting better and better. I love the team and I love being at the College and helping it change, grow, and evolve. I don’t want to see us be the exact same institution that I graduated from. I would much rather see us become an institution with a student body that is prepared for the 21st century. It’s a real honor, and it’s an honor that is unique in the rabbinate, to be able to help others choose this path.
How have your studies at HUC-JIR impacted your career?
When I was working in synagogues, I felt like I had received precise training. I always felt prepared, capable, and that I had the tools to learn new things. I always took unusual jobs, in that I was never an Assistant or Associate Rabbi at a synagogue. At Congregation Beth Am, I was a rabbi and the Program Director, taking care of chavurot, developing a young adults program, and expanding our social justice work. Then I moved to Temple Emanu-el, where I was the Director of Congregational Learning. I have a Master’s in Jewish Education so I leaned on those skills there. I wasn’t doing the traditional things most of our rabbinical students are prepared to do, and I still felt like I could be successful. My job at HUC-JIR is the most pastoral work I’ve ever done. I sit down, often with complete strangers, and they disclose a lot to me about their wishes, their hopes, their fears, their feelings of inadequacy, the obstacles that have kept them from applying already. They share a lot with me and it’s really personal and profound. I’m genuinely honored to be welcomed into those stories. I’ve had to do a lot of learning on my own to understand the world of higher education of which I’m a part, and I have the complete support of the College to do so. The College continues to support me in gaining the skills and knowledge I need to be successful in my career.
What is most rewarding about your leadership of the Office of Recruitment and Admissions? What is most challenging? Please share an accomplishment of which you are most proud.
The challenge for me is figuring out how to find the next generation of great Jewish leaders, and how to inspire the folks who aren’t already reaching out to us. The problem is not welcoming those who find us, it’s finding the people who need to be found, who need help being exposed to their choices. I’m proud that we are admitting some unbelievably talented people to all of our programs. I know we are doing good work when I think, “I would love to be in class with this person, to learn with them and from them,” and, “I would love to hire this person in two to five years.” We have an amazing ORA team, which I’m really proud to have helped build.
How do you see HUC-JIR growing and adapting to meet the needs of the moment?
I’m grateful that there is a language of change at the College. Any organization as old as we are has every reason to focus on words like “tradition,” “customs,” “conservation,” and “preservation,” and lately it feels like the tone is much more about “evolution,” “change,” and a “new chapter.” This is encouraging and is reflected in the curricula being developed and updated in the redesign of many of our programs. There’s not a satisfaction at the College at having finished a project, we’re always moving onto the next big thing, and I find that exciting and incredibly promising because it means that we will always be relevant.
Looking back, what is your favorite memory from your time as a student at HUC-JIR?
I loved being at the College and always received incredibly personalized attention to talk through my ideas and questions. I felt like I was encouraged to experiment a lot in prayer and in teaching. The College supported me in leading a trip to Israel with my student pulpit in 2002, which was still during the Intifada. Rather than dissuading or cautioning me they “yes, and-ed” me, supporting my mission. Rabbi Richard Levy ‘64, z”l, was my teacher and advisor, and he was one of the first people I’d always go to with my ideas. He would always say to people “this is a great idea,” and then he would say “yay!” very sincerely. He was always there for me, in the way that I see Rabbi Dvora Weisberg is here in Los Angeles, and I believe Rabbi Jonathan Hecht and Rabbi Lisa Grant are for the students on their respective campuses.
Looking forward, what’s coming up in the Office of Recruitment and Admissions? How can our community get involved?
Our work is pretty cyclical in the same way the Jewish calendar is and right now we’re in admissions season. The number one thing you can do is if there’s someone in your life who’s ever thought of being a Jewish professional, introduce them to us. You don’t need to sell them on anything, it’s not even really our job to sell them on anything. We help them answer these questions for themselves. If there’s someone you think should be considering these different paths to serve the Jewish people, tell them “the world needs leaders” like them. If there’s someone in your life who likes this work, don’t be afraid to encourage and nurture them. If you have means and can give to your community so that young people can do the programs that I had the benefit of doing, do that too. Send young people to Israel to study and work. The best thing people can be doing is talking about this as a real career and introducing them to us. Even if they’re not the right fit for us, but are the right fit for another institution that we consider a peer, I will introduce them to that place, because I would love to see great Jewish professionals get paired with the right education.
How would you describe HUC-JIR in one word?