June 12, 2024
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June 12, 2024
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Linking Northern and Central NJ, Bronx, Manhattan, Westchester and CT

A Ba’al Teshuva Rabbi Brings College Students Back to the Derech

Bergenfield, NJ—In his late teens, Ely Allen swore off the Modern Orthodox lifestyle, wore his hair long and enjoyed backstage passes to Grateful Dead concerts. He was the pledge master of his fraternity at Fairleigh Dickenson University. In later years, Allen worked in finance, researching the video game market on behalf of investors. One wouldn’t imagine that these experiences would be useful in bringing Jews back to the fold, but they are.

For the past 12 years, Rabbi Ely Allen has been working with students on college campuses all over Bergen County and teaching more than a dozen classes a week to various ages of students in the region, from the high school to adult level. Allen also hosts huge kiruv (Jewish outreach) Shabbatons with his wife, Rebecca, at their home in Bergenfield, and also hosts a Shabbaton once a semester for his international and mechinah students from Yeshiva University, where he teaches philosophy and Tanach four mornings a week. He has also previously served as rabbi for Congregation Shaarei Orah, the Sephardic congregation in Teaneck, having been recruited for the job by president Ovadia Mussaffi, z”l.

“I barely graduated high school,” said Dov Carpe, a student of Allen’s. “I wanted to be a rock star, and I almost failed out of Bergen Community College.” After a frightening experience on the Jersey Shore, where he was caught in a riptide trying to save a friend, Carpe picked up the phone and called Allen, whom he had had as a teacher in Hebrew high school.

“I showed up at Rabbi Allen’s house with spiked hair, earrings, shorts and a T-shirt. I never felt once that people were judging me. I felt loved,” said Carpe.

Now, eight years later, Carpe lives in Teaneck with his wife and infant daughter. He is a college graduate in his third year of rabbinical school at Yeshiva University. He has worked for NCSY and now works as a staff member for Allen.

Carpe attributes his turnaround to Allen, and said he models his actions and way of life on Allen’s. “He treats everyone the same, with the utmost respect and dignity. People see that he really cares. He gets to know his students, he wants what’s best for the person; for the individual, not necessarily what he thinks is best, but he will give advice to people based on what makes sense for them,” he said.

Allen is known for his welcoming nature and open home. “I firmly believe that joy and stressing the positive elements of Judaism is key. We send our kids to yeshivas, tell them that everything is assur (forbidden), that Shabbat is a day that you can’t breathe and that you can’t do anything fun. What do you expect a kid to do? We try to really stress a positive atmosphere here. We don’t judge anyone, people come in here with long hair, with whatever,” Allen said.

“People have a good time when they come here. There are footprints on the ceiling in my shul, from the stage diving on Simchas Torah,” Allen said.

What kind of YU-educated, Orthodox rabbi is this, you might ask? How does one go from completely secular to an inspired leader with a passion for kiruv and a record of success?

The story begins, as many do, with Allen’s parents and grandparents. His paternal grandmother and grandfather were from Syria and Iraq, respectively. Both his mother and father were born in Cairo, Egypt, and separately fled to France in 1967, just prior to the Six-Day War.

“France was the only country that would accept Egyptian Jews with their status as refugees,” he said. The pair met when they came to America with the help of the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society (HIAS). They settled in Jersey City, and Allen was born there in 1970, learning to speak French from his mother, a skill that today helps him communicate with the international students he teaches at YU.

The Allens moved to Englewood when he was 5, where Ely’s father, Albert, started a Sephardic minyan with ten families. Today it is a dedicated wing at Congregation Ahavat Torah, called the Jacob Benaroya Sephardic Center.

The young Allen went to Yeshiva of Hudson County and then Yeshiva University High School during the late 1980s, a particularly challenging time for the institution, when the school was rocked by sex abuse scandals that have since been characterized as having been poorly handled at the time. “As a result of my experiences there, I no longer wanted to be observant,” Allen said.

Beginning studies in psychology at Fairleigh Dickenson University, Allen was not religious. “I still had my kippah on, but observance was not for me. I was off the derech,” he said.

The metamorphosis began when he was approached by two Chabad rabbis, Rabbi Mordechai Weiss and Rabbi Michel Gurkhov, who had just started the Chabad House at Kenwood Place in Teaneck. They asked Allen to help identify Jewish students on campus. Allen said he wasn’t enthusiastic, but agreed to help out. Eventually, he began going to Chabad and took classes with both rabbis.

“I started learning Chassidus, which I was never really exposed to, and I was like, wow, you mean there are reasons why we’re doing all this stuff? It’s not all just mind-control or whatever? I began learning Tanya, Chassidus, mussar and about my Sephardic heritage, and I was very taken by their approach, which was very different from the Judaism I had been exposed to growing up.”

Allen spent several summers during college studying at the Rabbinical College of America in Morristown.

“By the end of college, I was the president of Hillel at Fairleigh, and when I graduated, I went to Israel, to Machon Me’ir, the baal teshuva wing of Merkaz HaRav.” Allen learned there for a few months, and while still in Israel in 1993, met and became engaged to Rebecca.

After getting married, the Allens settled near his parents in Englewood. He started working in business, as well as teaching at area Hebrew schools, most notably the Bergen County High School of Jewish Studies, a non-denominational, Federation-associated Hebrew high school, which meets at Maayanot on Sundays. “I attribute all of my success to that school, because that’s where I started teaching,” he said.

“My classes got completely booked, and before I knew it I was teaching about a dozen times a week in different places. I thought to myself, ‘I probably should know what I’m talking about if I’m going to do all this,’” he said.

“I went back to school to YU and finished smicha in five years. I learned with many different wonderful rabbeim, both Sephardi and Ashkenazi. I had the privilege of learning with Rabbi Yaakov Neuberger, Rabbi Baruch Simon, Rabbi Eliyahu Ben Haim and Rabbi Zvulun Lieberman, z”l.

“During that time, I still believed that I was not going to be able use the rabbinate to make a parnassah. I loved teaching, but I thought there was no way to make a livelihood with it, so I went into finance. I managed several accounts in the stock market, so I was working on the video game market, researching the Wii, the Sony Playstation. This comes into play because when you speak to high school kids and their rabbi knows more about video games than they do, it’s kind of surprising and gets their attention.”

During Allen’s last year in YU, when he was teaching in Sinai Schools, an opportunity came up for him to become the campus youth services director for what is now the Jewish Federation of Northern New Jersey, to work with college students on the local campuses of Bergen Community College (BCC), Fairleigh Dickenson University and Ramapo College. “I jumped at that opportunity, because I thought it would be more of a challenge for me to have thousands of students to interact with.

“In 2001, only Ramapo College had a Hillel. Fairleigh and BCC were defunct. Now, I had an unfair advantage over all of my predecessors, which was that I taught at the largest Hebrew high school in the area and many of my students went to college locally. I automatically had students I knew at all the colleges and was thus able to form viable Hillel clubs both at BCC and Fairleigh Dickenson.”

Several years later, when two Jewish Federations merged, Allen also took over campus youth services at William Paterson University. At that point, the Federation signed an affiliation agreement with the national non-denominational Hillel organization so that Allen’s campus organization could be called Hillel of Northern New Jersey. This now “services the four local campuses, and can provide services for any college-age student in the entire area,” Allen said.

“This means that someone who’s taking a break from college, or going through some problems, for whatever reason, if they’re not going to school now but are of college age, we can welcome them into our programming, into our chesed volunteer opportunities and social events. I can give them counsel, they can come to my weekly Torah class, and they have a number of things that are available to them that a classic Hillel can’t offer, because it’s only on one college campus. We’re one of the only Hillels in the country like this, where the Federation fully supports the Hillel,” he said.

“Rabbi Allen is very approachable, and talks about topics frankly and caringly to young students who are confused or just at the phase of their life where they want answers about controversial issues, like, say, what are the Jewish views on tattoos, or premarital sex,” said Carpe. “He doesn’t try to dance around tough topics. He seeks truth, and people respond to that.”

Much of Allen’s success is likely due to the strong relationships he has with other local rabbeim and various institutions. The non-denominational nature of Hillel and his inclusive personality helps him to bring in students, but it is his relationships that help him guide those students to where they need to be. “This happens to be my home, and we’re Sephardi here. But, if you want to daven Conservative, I’ll call the rabbi there and get you to him,” Allen said.

By Elizabeth Kratz

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