From Public School in Montreal to Leader of Oakland Synagogue, Rabbi Gershon Albert ’12SB ’14R Devoted to Enriching Jewish Experience
Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary (RIETS) and the Yeshiva University community will celebrate the ordination of more than 130 musmachim [ordained rabbis] at its Chag HaSemikhah Convocation on March 19, 2017. While most will remain engaged in either full-time post-semicha Torah study or religious work—Jewish education, the pulpit, outreach or non-profit work—many will pursue careers in other professions, including medicine and law.
In the weeks leading up to the celebration, YU News will introduce you to several of these remarkable musmachim.
Rabbi Gershon Albert’s journey to the pulpit of Beth Jacob Congregation of Oakland, California, begins in a somewhat unusual setting: the French public high school he and his twin brother, Laizer, attended in Montreal, Quebec.
“I had incredibly positive experiences at that time with the community rabbi, who served as a role model for me,” he said. “My brother and I decided to switch to a Jewish school, where we started to grow spiritually—we started keeping Shabbos, started learning together inside and outside of school. I was really passionate about the Torah I was learning.”
To further their connection to Judaism, the pair opted to study for two years in Israel at Yeshivat Netiv Aryeh and continue their education at YU, with the help of generous scholarships. “The school made it possible for both of us to attend YU at an affordable rate,” Albert said. “It was the perfect place to continue full time yeshiva learning and get an outstanding secular education.”
However, even then, the rabbinate was still a long way from his mind. Albert considered a career in architecture but settled instead on accounting at the Sy Syms School of Business; his brother pursued an economics degree from Yeshiva College, with a business minor. Looking back, Albert says, he feels his background at Sy Syms was actually important preparation for his current role: “It’s really helped me as a shul rabbi, because I can be involved in deep financial conversations, I can read the balance sheet.”
It was actually a personality test that Albert took at the YU Career Center that initially prompted him to consider semicha. “One of the outcomes was clergy,” he recalled. “I realized I needed to be in a career that would put me in direct conversation with people and enable me to really help and nurture them throughout their lives—and I first started to find that experience by engaging others using my own love of Torah.”
As an undergraduate, Albert immersed himself in extracurricular activities that gave him an opportunity to do just that, helping run a student-led initiative, Yismechu, which brought YU students to smaller Jewish communities to enrich Shabbat celebrations. “The exposure to teaching in shul settings and engaging others with the idea of Torah Umadda that YU represents was foundational for me,” he said. “I realized becoming a rabbi would be a way to further that conversation.”
Today, Albert feels that the close mentorship and holistic approach to rabbinic training he received at RIETS were critical to his formation as a communal leader. “It went beyond even the coursework at RIETS—I loved being able to take advanced Judaic studies classes at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies and the professional opportunities I was able to take advantage of and learned so much from,” he said. “For example, being a rabbinic intern at the Center for the Jewish Future really opened my eyes to what Torah Umadda can mean in different communities across the country, and I had the opportunity to be a part of Rav Schechter’s kollel, which was intimidating and consuming at first but ultimately so rewarding.”
As a pulpit rabbi, however, Albert is especially grateful for the ways RIETS equipped him to serve at the helm of a congregation—not only in terms of halachic expertise and Torah learning, but also as a confidant, a policy-maker, and the many other roles and responsibilities the modern rabbinate comprises.
“Rabbi Yona Reiss did a class on contemporary rabbinic issues that at the time seemed so abstract, but now looking back I have actually encountered two thirds of the issues already, and his tremendous knowledge of Torah and real-life sensitivity has served as a guiding light for me,” said Albert. “Rabbi Penner had a fourth-year homiletics class that really helped me with ability to give drashot [sermons]. He forced us to hone our skills and plan words we teach, and one of the lessons that really has stuck with me and motivated me to give my all is when he explained why preparation was so important: ‘If you give a boring speech, your congregation isn’t going to think, ‘This is a boring rabbi. They’ll think, G-d forbid, ‘This is a boring Torah.’ We have a huge opportunity – and responsibility – to represent Him every time we speak ”
Another class that made a deep impact on Albert was a fourth-year pastoral training course, which employed actors to simulate scenarios musmachim might encounter as pulpit rabbis. “We were expected to take the role of the rabbi and try to counsel these actors as if they were experiencing these real-life scenarios,” he said. “In one of these cases, I had to tell a congregant that a close relative of theirs had passed away, and the actors were extremely lifelike. Within a year or two those were very real scenarios that I had to deal with, knowing what to do and what to say in the minutes and hours after a loved one has passed away, and this course was exceedingly helpful in preparing me for that.”
But Albert’s connection to RIETS didn’t end when he earned his semicha. “I have my rebbe, Rav Baruch Simon, on speed dial—I speak to him constantly about many different halachic issues that come up in my community,” Albert said. “I’ve also been really blessed to attend the YU yarchei kallahs [days of learning] for rabbis starting new positions with Rabbi Jacob J. Schachter and Rabbi Ari Sytner and the chizuk [inspiration] that we’ve gotten there has been really helpful. It really helped me understand that I wasn’t the only person going through what I was going through.”
With his congregation in Oakland, Albert is enjoying the opportunity to completely immerse himself in building the Jewish community, in as many ways as he can. “I feel deeply committed to Jewish communities in out of town settings,” he said. “I think there’s so much I can gain by being in a community with a tremendous amount of diversity, and as a young rabbi when you go to these communities you become deeply involved in every part of the Jewish picture, from eruv to kashrut to Talmud Torah to pastoral work. I oversaw the building of a mikvah last year, I am engaged in success of our local orthodox day school, we’re building an eruv. It is so rewarding to invest deeply in these communities.”
Ultimately, Albert hopes that his position as a rabbi enables him to make a true difference in the lives of Jews from many backgrounds and levels of observance. “My goals as a pulpit rabbi is to be an access point for the incredible mesorah [tradition] that we have as Orthodox Jews from every background, show people how deeply relevant and meaningful a Jewish life can be and help them take the next step in their Jewish journey without judging them or making them feel uncomfortable,” he said.