Alison Adler '89
A woman in full: Alison Adler '89 finds her voice as a rabbinical student
I t took almost a decade, but Alison P. Adler '89 has found her voice. Her medium of expression comes through the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia, where she is studying to become a rabbi.
"In my exploration of Judaism, I've been able to find my voice and identity," says Adler, who returns to Kenyon twice a year to lead High Holiday services. "I know this is what I want to do. I didn't have this kind of identity before."
Part of the identity to which she refers is her mission to help women and teenagers with eating disorders and issues of self esteem. A conference she organized in Philadelphia last May, "Food, Body Image, and Judaism," was such a success that another is being planned in either Florida or New York. The one-day event was sponsored by Kolot (Hebrew for voices), also known as the Center for Jewish Women's and Gender Studies, at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and the Renfrew Center, a women's mental-health facility specializing in eating disorders.
Adler's experience as a student at the College, her two-year stint as an assistant director of admissions after graduation, her studies to earn a master's degree in counseling psychology at Northwestern University, and her time working and studying in Israel have transformed the girl who came to Kenyon with her own eating disorder in the fall of 1985.
A confident self-described feminist, with a strong commitment to her faith, Adler believes her mission is to help adolescent girls build healthy identities through her conferences and support groups. She doesn't talk about the specifics of her own eating disorder in the tell-all confessional style of the nineties. "I do talk about it, because I feel like my work with teenagers is to say, `I had this and I'm O.K. now,'" says Adler, declining to divulge the specifics of her disorder outside of her work.
It's all in the past now.
"Every day I say a blessing before I eat food. There's so much in Jewish tradition about food, the body, and spirituality," she says. "It's beautiful and meaningful. Those are the kinds of things I want to teach and share with people."
When Adler arrived at the College in 1985, she probably wasn't much different from some of her classmates--a little unfocused, not too sure about where she wanted to be in the next ten years. She took advantage of Kenyon's resources and soon fell under the wing of one of her teachers, Professor of Psychology Michael Levine, who specializes in eating disorders. Adler, who describes Levine as a mentor, developed a relationship with him through babysitting and their interaction at Jewish services on campus.
During this time, Adler was also influenced by Lori Lefkovitz, a former member of the English faculty who is now the director of Kolot, and Lefkovitz's husband, Leonard Gordon, who was director of the Integrated Program in Humane Studies and a chaplain to the College's Jewish community. Gordon is now a rabbi at the Germantown Jewish Center, where Adler teaches and worships.
"It was at Kenyon that I started to realize there was something missing for me," says Adler. "There were so many things I didn't know about my Jewish history and heritage."
The desire to discover her heritage--to find her voice--is what led Adler to Israel for the year-long World Union of Jewish Students (WUJS) program, where she studied Hebrew for six months before taking internships where she worked with "at-risk" children. After finishing the WUJS program, she spent six months on a kibbutz, something she likens to a socialist version of a commune.
Since women rabbis are not acknowledged in Israel, Adler thinks it's ironic that it was there she first began to think seriously about becoming a rabbi. But it was in Israel that she met two women studying to become rabbis. "Meeting them made it seem more real to me," she says of her first encounter with Jewish women in positions of spiritual leadership.
While Adler doesn't think there is a higher percentage of eating disorders among Jewish adolescents, she does think there are areas that need to be addressed. "There's such a focus on food in Jewish families," she says. "You have a family that says, `Eat more, eat more,' and a society that tells girls they need to be thin."
Adler dismisses some of the recent controversy about ultra-thin pop-culture icons such as Calista Flockhart, who plays Ally McBeal on the popular Fox television series of the same name. "The girls I work with know better," she says. "They know that's not how women are supposed to look, but that doesn't mean they don't still have issues with their own bodies."
Adler has three years of study left at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. While she admits her plans for a future as a rabbi are uncertain, she says she will definitely continue her work with teenagers, mothers and daughters, body image, and eating disorders.
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