By Ben Tinsley
DALLAS — On July 1, Asher Knight will take the next big step in his rabbinical career.
Knight, who has been working as associate rabbi of Dallas’ Temple Emanu-El for the past nine years, is set to become the new senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina.
He succeeds Temple Beth El Rabbi Judy Schindler, who held her post at Temple Beth El for a little under two decades.
Daniel Utley, a recent graduate of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, is set to replace Knight as Temple Emanu-El’s associate rabbi, also July 1.
Knight discussed his rabbinical plans for the immediate future by phone.
On one hand, Knight said, he looks forward to his new job because Temple Beth El is at the cutting edge of the Reform Judaism movement.
But on the other, he said he’s really and truly going to miss Dallas.
“This is a bittersweet moment,” Knight said. “It has been the most incredible of opportunities to work with the clergy team, staff and lay leaders in our congregation. I feel so appreciative and respectful of this community.”
Knight’s wife, Ana Bonnheim, also a rabbi, is director of Year Round Programs at URJ Greene Family Campus — where she has worked since 2008. She will not continue in the position with the move. The couple have two children, Micah, 4, and Jonas, 8 months.
‘Star of the Reform Judaism Movement’
Rabbi Knight’s colleagues say he is considered a star in the Reform Judaism movement.
“It’s a cliché, of course, but our loss certainly is the gain of the Charlotte congregation,” said Mike Sims, Temple Emanu-El vice president and chair of Sh’ma Emanu-El, the synagogue’s small groups initiative. “From my perspective, Rabbi Knight is one of the leading lights among younger rabbis in the nation.”
Rabbi Knight holds a bachelor’s degree in international relations from University of Denver and a Masters of Hebrew Letters and Rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Temple Emanu-El, incidentally, is the largest synagogue in the Southwest United States and the third largest in the Union for Reform Judaism.
In Dallas, Rabbi Knight is well-known for the leadership roles he has taken in social justice efforts.
These include a community garden for a low-income neighborhood and the creation of a food pantry.
There also is an initiative to provide free legal services to migrants seeking refugee status or asylum and a durable medical equipment exchange program that refurbishes, restores and recycles items such as hospital beds and wheelchairs.
The New York Times interviewed the rabbi in 2014 about the violence and exploitation facing migrant children arriving in Texas and other border states from Central America. He offered notable observations.
“We’re talking about whether we’re going to stand at the border and tell children who are fleeing a burning building to go back inside,” Rabbi Knight told the news organization.
Rabbi Knight told The Times that leaders of more than 100 faith organizations in his city had met to discuss how to help.
He observed that in his own congregation, some were comparing the flow of immigrant children to the Kindertransport — a rescue mission in the late 1930s that sent Jewish children from Nazi Germany to Britain for safekeeping.
“The question for us is: How do we want to be remembered, as yelling and screaming to go back, or as using the teachings of our traditions to have compassion and love and grace for the lives of God’s children?” Knight posited.
Knight’s wisdom is very well-known and respected by many, including Barbara Hyman — a member of the Temple Emanu-El board of trustees.
Hyman has worked closely with Knight on Just Congregations, the Temple’s social justice advocacy program, and on Sh’ma Emanu-El.
“As you might imagine, I have mixed feelings about Rabbi Knight’s departure — thrilled for him and the opportunity, sad for me personally and for Temple Emanu-El,” she said. “I’ll miss his passion for social justice, and his vision of Temple Emanu-El as a congregation of small groups. I know he’ll be a wonderful senior rabbi. Temple Beth-El is a lucky congregation, and Charlotte is a lucky community.”
Rabbi David Stern, senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El, agreed, describing Rabbi Knight as a “mensch of the first order.”
“We will miss him greatly,” Rabbi Stern said. “But we know the gifts he brought to us at Temple Emanu-El — intelligence, contentment and vision — will be a blessing to all who are privileged to be part of his congregation in Charlotte.”
Knight and Reform Judaism
It is the people, staff and clergy at Temple Beth El that remain at the cutting edge of the Reform movement, Rabbi Knight asserted.
“I will be applying what I learned in Dallas to the next stage of my rabbinate,” he said.
There is a bit of a size difference between congregations: Temple Emanu-El consists of 2,500 families and Temple Beth El in Charlotte, North Carolina numbers at 1,140 families.
“It’s about half of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas,” Rabbi Knight estimated.
Temple Beth El has what is considered to be the largest congregation in the Carolinas, Rabbi Knight said.
Temple Beth El is located on 54 rolling wooded acres known as Shalom Park. Shalom Park brings together the Charlotte Jewish community’s resources.
Brought together under a shared dynamic to share resources at Shalom Park are a synagogue, a conservative shul, a Jewish Federation, a day school and a preschool, the rabbi said.
“They are using space in a unique and collaborative way,” he added.
Mike Sims said with Knight’s departure, he would be taking a strong voice for social justice and relationships with him.
“It’s going to be on us to carry on Rabbi Knight’s work,” Sims said. “He is a hot ticket — a great thinker, a great pastor and a great teacher. But we all grow up and we all leave home and it is both wonderful and sad when that happens.”
Sims said he has known Knight for the entirety of the time he has lived in the Dallas area.
“I was on his search committee,” Sims said. “He and I have worked hand and glove on projects.”
Mike Rosen, a member of the leadership team for Sh’ma Emanu-El, has known Knight for quite some time. This new rabbi position is a great opportunity, Rosen said.
“I am happy for him but sad about him,” Rosen said. “I am really happy because this is such a great opportunity for him and his family. But while I am sad to see him leave, I also understand this is the opportunity … this is his opportunity to be the lead rabbi. This is a very big opportunity: To move on and have his own congregation.”
Knight is an appealing rabbi because he is bright, engaging, compassionate, and caring, Rosen said.
“There are times when I really can’t keep up with him, sitting in meetings with him all the time and bouncing back and forth from one issue to another,” Rosen said. “I start thinking, ‘What was it we were talking about?’ And then at midnight I get a long email from him outlining everything that was discussed.”
Helping others in that regard is just who Knight is, Rosen said.
“He really cares about the issues,” Rosen said.
Rabbi Asher Knight said he has truly loved his experience in North Texas.
“I have so loved the unity in Dallas and with the people in Dallas,” he said. “I will always hold this place in my heart. But at the same time, the opportunity to be senior rabbi is an incredible opportunity.”
Rabbi Knight said Temple Emanu-El is a place where anything can happen because of the quality of the leadership and staff and clergy.
“My hope is to take that sense of hope and possibility there — of people really working together collaboratively — and apply it to the work I do with the congregation in Charlotte,” he said. “It has been truly the greatest joy to serve Temple and it will always be with me.”