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Alumnus Puts DU Leadership Lessons Into Practice as Rabbi

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Matt Johnson

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Asher Knight’s winding road to becoming a rabbi began when he made the choice to attend the University of Denver, his hometown school and a favorite cause for his grandmother, Marion Gottesfeld, who served on the DU Board of Trustees for 47 years.

Rabbi Asher Knight
Rabbi Asher Knight

“I was worried about what would it mean to go to DU, given that I was from Denver,” Knight says. “Then I realized that sometimes the very best things are in your backyard.”

While at DU, Knight was fueled by a desire to become a citizen of the world. He majored in international studies, minored in Judaic studies and considered an array of career paths: perhaps work at the State Department, pursuit of a graduate degree, or maybe work for a nongovernmental organization. He also toyed with the idea of becoming a teacher or psychologist.

In time, he came to see where his many passions were leading him vocationally.

“I kind of realized I love teaching. I love learning. I love helping people during the good times and the difficult times of life. I love asking questions. I love helping to be an agent of social change and social justice. I realized sort of that I wanted a career not just doing one of those things, but actually all of them.”

With that insight pointing the way, he enrolled at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion after graduating from DU in 2001. He spent his first year at the seminary’s Jerusalem campus before transferring to the Cincinnati campus for the next four years.

By 2007 he was ordained as a rabbi, and he moved to Texas with his wife (also a rabbi) to become an assistant rabbi at Temple Emanu-El. There, he found himself at one of the Southwest’s largest synagogues, with more than 2,600 families. While in Dallas, Knight worked with 50 other faith organizations to sign up 100,000 people for the Affordable Care Act, a feat that captured the attention of President Barack Obama. The president responded with a visit to Temple Emanu-El to honor that work.

“That changed people’s lives, and that was faith institutions working across lines of difference ... to create change,” Knight says. “Obama’s visit was the cherry on top.”

Rabbi Asher Knight
Rabbi Asher Knight meets President Barak Obama in 2013.

After leaving Texas, Knight moved to Charlotte, North Carolina, where he serves as senior rabbi at Temple Beth-El, the largest synagogue in the Carolinas. Now just 40 years old, he is one of the younger rabbis in the country to lead a congregation of 1,000 or more families.

Knight credits DU, especially the Pioneer Leadership Program, with teaching him many of the leadership skills that he uses on the job.

“The University of Denver I think really afforded the opportunities to hone in on what leadership looks like: [leadership] that is responsible from a governance, risk management and fiduciary perspective but also is mission- and vision-driven,” he explains. That immersion in leadership also has helped him guide his congregation through many challenges, ranging from poverty, substance abuse and family troubles to anti-Semitism in the larger community.

“Part of the strength of being able to move forward with courage is the ability to understand the arc of history,” Knight explains. “And I think the way that I've gotten through [difficulty] is to sort of recognize that there can be trust in the process of bringing people in, of having conversations, of having faith that there's going to be a bright future. But also, point[ing] our vessels toward a north that’s a true north.”

Finally, Knight recalls, DU gave him a lively academic community — rich in arts, cultural and athletics events — that welcomes students and faculty from all over the country and globe. It was just what he needed to realize his goal of becoming a citizen of the world.