Reform Congregation Beth Chaim Rabbi Celebrates 10 Years

Rabbi Michelle Pearlman holds a goat. The synagogue has brought in goats the last three Yom Kippurs; congregants whisper their sins to them.
Photo by Andrew Goldman

Leslie Feldman

Rabbi Michelle Pearlman came to Reform Congregation Beth Chaim in Malvern with a clear focus — to prioritize people over programs.

“My life and rabbinate have been transformed by the incredible relationships built through a love of Torah and community,” she said. “My role is to help individuals connect to God, to Judaism and to one another.”

On May 4, Pearlman will be honored for her decade on the bimah during the Nefesh Mountain Band fundraising concert at the Sheraton Great Valley.

“I am passionate about music, so bringing Nefesh Mountain to honor me is incredibly exciting,” Pearlman said. “I can’t wait for our community to experience their unique blend of bluegrass and Jewish music, which incorporates deep emotion and utter joy. And I am deeply grateful that the congregation has decided to make this a fundraiser, which will enable us to further our vision and find new ways to find deep meaning and joy in our faith tradition.”

A flourishing community
In 10 years as rabbi at Beth Chaim, the congregation has steadily grown to 225 member families.

“Our growth is due primarily to our rabbi’s emphasis on community engagement and a culture that provides serious support but doesn’t take itself too seriously,” said Alex Scherer, the synagogue board president. “My family’s first experience at Beth Chaim was a Sukkot picnic and service and, both inside the sanctuary and outside on the lawn, my kids were free to be themselves and my wife and I felt free to be ourselves — an interfaith couple.”

Education a priority
Vanessa Weisman, chair of the anniversary event, said the rabbi is passionate about youth education and how to apply Jewish values to everyday life. However, she also focuses on showing the younger generation how to advocate for civil rights and social justice for everyone.

“She does so in a way that is not hectoring or coercive,” Weisman said. “She actively listens to their concerns and then guides them. Our children admire and care for Rabbi Michelle.”
Weisman’s family joined 10 years ago and identify as “Jewishcopalian.” Weisman is Episcopalian and her husband is Jewish. The children have all been baptized, had their first holy communion and their bar/bat mitzvahs. They all identify as Jewish.

“I believe that is because of Rabbi Michelle’s focus on not trying to fit everyone into a homogeneous mold,” Weisman said. “She creates a welcoming, educational environment that is authentically attractive.”

Religious services include music and meditation.
“We have been focusing on making our religious school more engaging and relational, as we want our vision as a congregation to be reflected in everything that we do,” Weisman said. “We want our students to have a deep sense of their own Jewish belonging and to feel connected to something larger than themselves.”

Added Marc Manoff, synagogue board vice president, “Rabbi Pearlman has channeled her creative energy into a multitude of innovations in our religious services, including the inclusion of various synagogue groups and religious school classes.”

The synagogue is also providing more learning opportunities for families and adults, including Israel trips, a Judaism 101 class and Hebrew language class for adult beginners.

“Our teens are involved in social justice work with the L’Taken seminar in Washington, D.C.,” Scherer said. “Rabbi has also been instrumental in the substantial growth of the number of our kids attending Jewish summer camps.”

Reaching out to the community
Scherer explained that the synagogue focuses on helping the community create and sustain long-term relationships with each other.

“That is our style as well as the rabbi’s and will remain front and center as we create new opportunities in the years ahead,” he said.

Over the years, Pearlman has deepened her engagement in anti-racism work and said she is fortunate to have supportive community interfaith partners and congregational leaders.
“One of the highlights of working with the community was creating a mosaic with our interfaith neighbors highlighting our shared values,” she said. “This piece of art was dedicated by Congresswoman Chrissy Houlihan at the Frazer Mennonite Church and has been hosted in the sanctuaries of local churches and synagogues since its creation.”

Grateful to her congregants
“I am honored that people allow me to visit them in the hospital as it feels as if I am standing in the holy of holies when praying at someone’s bedside. I also have the deep privilege to stand under the chuppah with couples as they declare their love and commitment to one another, and I am deeply moved to accompany people as they walk through the shadow of the valley in their grief,” Pearlman said. “Our students are transformed through their mitzvah studies, and it is always a deep joy to stand with them and their families on the bimah as they celebrate their Jewish coming of age.”

She added, “I think we are the richest congregation in Chester County because we focus on relationships, and we have warm and caring members who really enjoy one another. Truly, this has not changed and only deepened since I arrived 10 years ago. I am blessed with incredible visionary leaders, and we truly have a sacred partnership.”

Leslie Feldman is a Philadelphia-area freelance writer.


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