From four Hillels to Israel

From four Hillels to Israel

Rabbi Ely Allen pulls up his deep local stakes to make aliyah

Here are some possibly obscure riddles, along with their answers.

When is a Hillel director not a Hillel director?

When he works for the local federation and directs Hillels on four separate colleges.

When does a Hillel director get to interweave four local colleges and the community into a real network?

When he works for the local federation and directs Hillels on four separate colleges.

Who is that Hillel director and what Hillels does he direct?

His name is Rabbi Ely Allen, and he oversees Hillels at William Paterson University in Wayne, Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, Ramapo College in Mahwah, and Bergen Community College in Paramus for the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey.

And when does this Hillel director say goodbye to all those Hillels, as well as a school for high school students, the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, where he has taught and whose board he has graced for about 20 years?

This summer, when he and his family move from their Bergenfield home and resettle in Israel.

That’s why it’s time to take a look at Rabbi Allen and his work.

Ely Allen was born in Jersey City in 1970, the oldest of four siblings. When he was 5, his parents, Albert and Sarah Levy Allen, moved the family to Englewood, where they still live.

The family is Sephardic. Both Albert and Sarah Allen were both in Egypt; Albert’s father made his way there from Kirkuk, Iraq, and married a woman born in Egypt; Sarah’s mother was from Syria and her father came from Tunisia. “They really adopted the Egyptian traditions,” Rabbi Allen said. “It’s perhaps the longest-standing tradition in the Middle East. It goes back to the First Temple period.

“On my mother’s side, there are genealogical records going back six generations,” he added.

But the firmly rooted love affair between Egypt and its Jews was pulled up and left to wither as the world changed around them. Gamal Abdel Nasser, the president of Egypt — or, as it was called during part of that time, the United Arab Republic — from 1956 until he died in 1970, made Jewish life there so uncomfortable that most fled. Many went to France, “because it was the only country that would accept them with a refugee status,” Rabbi Allen said. That’s where Sarah Levy went; Albert Allen, a salesman who “was involved in a number of different industries in Egypt, and was working with airplane simulators and fighter pilots,” went straight to New York, where a job was waiting for him.

“My father speaks fluent Arabic, and no matter where in the Arab world he happens to be, his Arabic is indistinguishable from the locals’,” Rabbi Allen said. “He loves to speak Arabic.”

Despite that exotic background, his parents “were set up and met at a cousin’s bar mitzvah, either in Jersey City or in Brooklyn,” their son said.

When the Allens moved from Jersey City to Englewood, they were surrounded mainly by Ashkenazim, but “after about 10 years my father started the Sephardic minyan there,” Rabbi Allen said. “At first, it met in people’s houses, but eventually Ahavath Torah was kind enough to give us a home.” It now has its own elaborately and beautifully decorated space in the Englewood shul.

Rabbi Ely Allen with his family, clockwise from bottom left, Orah, Abraham, Sara, and Neima, and his wife, Rebecca.
Rabbi Ely Allen with his family, clockwise from bottom left, Orah, Abraham, Sara, and Neima, and his wife, Rebecca.

Ely Allen, like his siblings, went to elementary school at what then was still the Yeshiva of Hudson County — now the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey. Next, he went to Yeshiva University High School for Boys during what he carefully calls its “tumultuous years” — the time when, it is forcefully alleged, some of its faculty members were physically and sexually abusing some of its students. “The end result was that I left high school not wanting to be Jewishly observant,” Rabbi Allen said.

“I had a very negative experience there,” he continued. “I did some research. About 50 percent of my classmates are no longer Shabbat observant.” That is an ongoing issue, according to Rabbi Allen, and not confined to schools such as his, where abuse led to disengagement. “That is an issue that none of the yeshiva high schools want to address,” he said. “It is true across the Jewish spectrum.”

To return to his story: He did not take a gap year to explore Israel. “When I graduated from YHS, I didn’t even consider going to Israel,” he said. “I was thoroughly disinterested in anything Jewish.”

He went straight to college. It is in his choice of college that Rabbi Allen’s position as the first-generation son of immigrants, not the late 1980s teenager, comes clear. “I wanted to go to a school that was local. I didn’t want to travel. Until high school, I didn’t even know what the SATS were. My parents had no idea that they existed. At school, they mentioned them here and there, but I figured it out when I took the PSAT.”

That means that the he never undertook the tortuous college search, a road littered with tests and scores and games and recitals and projects, and never had the vision of a dorm room beckoning to him like a glittering mirage at the end of that ordeal. Instead, “I went to Fairleigh Dickinson in Teaneck,” and he lived at home, he said matter-of-factly.

He majored in psychology, joined a fraternity, became its pledge master, “and was a fairly crazy person,” he said.

But he still was actively Jewish. “I was pretty much the only person there who wore a kippah,” he said. His relationship to religion was complicated. “I was never embarrassed about being Jewish — but I just didn’t like all those laws, and I didn’t like being in an oppressive environment.”

So when he was approached by rabbis from the local Chabad House “and they asked me if I would like to recruit Jewish students, I pretty much said ‘I don’t know why you want me to do that, but sure, I’ll do it.’”

Very soon, “I started learning with them, learning chasidism and mysticism, and it opened a new approach to Judaism, which I had not been exposed to before,” Rabbi Allen said. “It was like ‘Oh, there are reasons why we do all this stuff. It’s not just all rules. It’s not all negative.’

“So I started to become a little more observant, little by little, and I ended up being president of Hillel in my last year, organizing things, and bringing people to the Chabad House,” he continued. Often, the relationship between Hillel chapters and local Chabad groups are tense; both groups are going after the same students. But “We have a partnership with Chabad,” Rabbi Allen said. “We are on the same side. We are both trying to help people.”

His relationship with Chabad is deep. “When I was in college, I learned in Morristown” — that’s the movement’s Rabbinical College of America, possibly its flagship educational institution — “and I met the Lubavitcher rebbe about eight times. It was an intense experience,” he said.

“I was in the Chabad camp for some time, but I had a desire to reconnect with my Sephardic heritage,” Rabbi Allen said. Chabad, which began in the Russian town of Lubavitch, has roots deep in Eastern Europe. “I also appreciate a number of Jewish philosophies outside Chabad; I agree with many of Chabad’s principles but I didn’t feel it necessary to become part of Lubavitch to live or act according to those principles. I have more of an eclectic perspective on Jewish learning, and on how various perspectives complement each other.”

When he graduated from college, Rabbi Allen spent a year in Israel, studying at Yeshivat Machon Meir, “There was no thought in my mind of becoming a rabbi then,” he said.

A young Ely Allen meets the Lubavitcher rebbe.
A young Ely Allen meets the Lubavitcher rebbe.

When he got back to the United States in 1993, Ely Allen married Rebecca Henteleff. She came from Pittsburgh but moved to Englewood as a high school student, living with cousins, because she was dissatisfied with the options available to her in Pennsylvania. “Then we moved to Englewood and I started working with an accountant, drumming up business for him,” Rabbi Allen said. Through that job, he met Ary Frenkel, who worked with Holocaust survivors getting restitution from Germany. Rabbi Allen did some of that work himself as well, making sure survivors were not defrauded by any of the swindlers who saw them as easy marks.

“I did that for a few years, but I needed to make some additional cash, and I had the opportunity to teach in the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies,” the local Sunday Hebrew high school for public- and private-school students.

“It was a life-changing experience,” Rabbi Allen said simply.

“I really love teaching, and the students loved learning.

“From there, I started organizing classes for a group of baalei teshuva” — newly observant Jews whose enthusiasm outpaced their knowledge. “I would bring different rabbis from the community to speak at different people’s homes in Englewood. We had a network.

“At the end of my first year of marriage, I was already teaching and organizing. It just happened. I got thrown into it. It wasn’t anything I had in mind. And then I started speaking from the pulpit at the Sephardic minyan — we didn’t have a rabbi. And then I realized that I should know a little bit more about what I was talking about

“So I decided, with the advice of many friends, to go back to school. To YU, of all places. I began my rabbinic studies there in 1996.”

Rabbi Allen never has been able to confine himself to one job. As he studied for ordination, “I was teaching, I was involved in managing accounts in the stock market, I became very interested in researching the video game and independent film industries.” In fact, it wasn’t until this period of his life that Rabbi Allen made the decision that although he loved the world of finance, and had been lured by it, “I would much rather be involved in Jewish engagement and teaching. But I do still dabble in the stock market today, not professionally but just for fun.”

(Now might be a good time to mention that although his two sisters have made aliyah, and their parents split their time between New Jersey and Israel, his brother, Michael, who lives in Cresskill, “works for Jay Z and Rihanna. He’s our family outlier,” Rabbi Allen said.)

Rabbi Allen has done a great deal of work in the community. He taught at the Sinai Special Needs Institute, and for many years was on the board of J-ADD (the Jewish Association for Developmental Disabilities); he stayed with the BCHSJS for 20 years (and was just honored by that institution for that service, and the love he engendered there, last month). He also undertook short stints as a pulpit rabbi, taught in many places, and even wrote an occasional column for one of our publications, “About Our Children.”

When the chance to work for the federation came up, it made such undeniable sense to Rabbi Allen that he felt compelled to take it.

It is an unusual job. Although he directs four Hillel chapters, “I never actually worked for Hillel,” he said. His organization, called Hillel of Northern New Jersey, is an affiliate of Hillel. “It is an unusual alignment,” he said. It has a far broader reach than conventionally organized Hillels. “We provide services to all local college students, no matter where they go to school,” he said.

Funded through the federation, Hillel of Northern New Jersey works with students on all four campuses and students who go to other schools but whose parents live in the federation’s catchment area. “All the events we have are open to everyone. “I don’t know if it’s a unique model, but I don’t know of any others like it,” he continued. It’s a result of the good will and generosity of the federation, the fact that so many BHSJS alumni maintain strong ties to him and to the area, and come back home for summers during college, and “the synergy that we have allows us to do a lot of things that normally we wouldn’t be able to do,” he said.

“We have all the resources of the federation open to us, and all the community contacts. There is a world of difference when you are living in the community. We have a partnership.”

Given this immersion in the community, it is clear that the Allen family’s decision to move to Israel could not have been made lightly. “But my family and I” — by now the family includes four children; Abraham, 18; Sara, 15; Orah, 7; and Neima, 3 — “always had the dream of going to Israel, but we always told ourselves that we couldn’t afford it. We couldn’t imagine it. It didn’t seem to make sense.

“But then the reality of yeshiva tuition and health insurance and homeowners’ costs here — it became very clear that actually it is financially easier to live in Israel than here.

“And of course my sisters moved to Israel a few years ago, and a lot of close friends have made aliyah. That clearly paved the way for us.

“But then I was given an unbelievable opportunity to work with Yeshivat Lev HaTorah,” he said.

Yes, Rabbi Allen is moving to Israel to take his dream job. “I have been working with so many students, and it always has been my dream to start some kind of yeshiva in Israel,” he said. Through a series of meetings, coincidences, chance encounters, and the realization of shared ideals, he and his good friend Rabbi Mordechai Gershon, who is leaving his job as assistant rabbi at Congregation Ahavath Torah in Englewood to make aliyah, will work with Rabbi Boaz Mori in his yeshiva.

“It has a philosophy of openness and inclusiveness; a certain eclecticism in terms of learning,” he said. “What I love about Lev HaTorah is its character orientation, its middot, its values. They are polite and humble and respectful. “

At Hillel, Rabbi Allen worked with students of all Jewish backgrounds; it is a point of pride with him that he met each one of them where he or she was. “It is not a cookie-cutter thing,” he said. “You have to put time and effort into listening to people. If you don’t have your own agenda and want to help them, it is much easier to guide them.”

That is the approach he plans to take at Yeshivat Lev HaTorah. He lists the three things that appeal to him most about his new job.

“There will be a Sephardic track,” he said. “There will be a summer program for college students, and along with a group of professionals I will teach them specific skills that they can use when they come back to campus, everything from being a gabbai to being a kashrut supervisor in a Hillel kitchen to basic security training.

“And there will be a gap-year program for someone who is going to college, who is not necessarily observant, but has decided that he wants a year in Israel. We have been tasked with developing this kind of opportunity for someone who would like to start being observant, or to have the skills to learn on their own.”

Given Rabbi Allen’s wide range of skills and interests, his extensive and eclectic job history, the depth of his connections both here and in Israel, it is likely that we will hear a great deal more from him as he develops Yeshivat Lev HaTorah.

Like his students at Hillel and BCHSJS, we will miss him.