Rabbi Michelle Pearlman brings unique vocal talents to her new post as head rabbi at Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, Pa.
Editor’s Note: This is the third in a series of profiles introducing new rabbis in the area.
For five years of her life, Rabbi Michelle Pearlman worked as a professional opera singer in Chicago. Now, she’s bringing her musical talents to her new gig as the head rabbi of Beth Chaim Reform Congregation in Malvern, Pa.
“I ended up supporting my singing habit — lessons and coachings and audition expenses — by becoming a cantorial soloist in a Reform congregation in Chicago,” recalled Pearlman.
After deciding to leave behind her musical career to become a rabbi, the Detroit area native drew on her strong Jewish background — she grew up in the Michigan Reform Temple Youth movement and attended a Jerusalem-based ulpan in 1994 — to work various roles in Jewish community service before becoming ordained at The Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York in 2005.
Stops along the way included serving as the associate rabbi of Temple Shalom in Newton, Mass., and as the rabbi of Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls, N.J. Pearlman also worked as director of community engagement at the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County.
Supporting her at Beth Chaim are her husband, Drew, who has several relatives in the Bucks County area, and their daughters Madeline, 10; Noa, 6; and Tal, 15 months.
Pearlman expressed excitement at working alongside cantor Denise Moser, with whom she has already begun to collaborate.
“She sometimes invites me to sing with her,” said Pearlman. “Sometimes I will incorporate song into my teaching and have even sung when giving a creative sermon when the text and message invite such creativity.”
What made you want to become a rabbi?
I had a wonderful experience, and came of age, in the Chicago area in this synagogue where they really embraced me. At a certain point, I decided that the life of a singer was not really for me.
You have to be kind of a vagabond and you have to be willing to go where the work is, and I loved community.
I loved this congregation — it was called Kol Ami, it’s no longer around — but it was in the Water Tower Place building in Chicago. It was an urban congregation. We used to call ourselves ‘The Shul in the Sky’ because it was in a skyscraper; it was awesome.
There was a turning-point moment when I sat with the rabbi there and I said, ‘You know if I could do anything in the world, what I’d really love to do is study Torah and I’d love to become a rabbi.’
He said, ‘OK, so you need to apply to rabbinical school.’
So that’s what I did.
What do you most identify with about the Reform movement?
I’m really proud that for 40-plus years now the Reform movement has been welcoming a diverse membership. The conversations around the Pew study and interfaith couples — that’s really a conversation that we’ve been having and responding to positively for so many years.
I’m also really proud that our movement ordained the first female rabbi, Sally Priesand. In fact, she was my predecessor at Monmouth Reform Temple so I got to know her very well.
And I’m proud that our movement was in the vanguard of marriage equality, and just understanding that the face of American Jewry is changing in that we, as congregational leaders, as Jewish leaders, are responsible for reaching out and welcoming folks.
What is the biggest challenge facing your congregation?
My new congregation is really an amazing congregation. It started from a very small group of people who put an ad in the newspaper to create a Reform presence in Chester County.
Their growth has been exponential from that initial ad they put in the newspaper 22 years ago, wondering who they would attract, and 60 people showed up for Shabbat services.
They’ve had so many opportunities for growth along the way, and seven years ago, they built this beautiful building that they’re in, that we’re all in.
So I think the biggest challenge is really what’s next in the development for this community. There are endless possibilities.
What is the biggest challenge facing American Jewry?
Apathy. Jews in America have a lot of choices and sometimes when you have so many choices, you make the choice not to make any choice because it’s too overwhelming.
So I think the biggest issue is finding a way to engage people where it really touches them personally, where they find it meaningful, where they can give of themselves. That takes creating those personal relationships, which takes a lot of time and a lot of effort, but yields a lot of fruit. People have to be engaged in a way that is meaningful on an individual basis, and it’s hard.
Could you share a favorite High Holidays moment?
I love the High Holidays because it’s a time when everybody comes together, it’s very powerful.
I’ve been looking forward to the first High Holidays with my new congregation. But I’m also looking forward to down the road, you know, five, 10, 20 years, when I look back out and see people that I really know; that we’ve had simchas together, that we’ve shared sorrows together, we’ve partnered together to create new directions for the congregation.
It’s such a wonderful experience as a rabbi to look out and see all of these faces of people, and when you really create those deep relationships in a congregation it’s even richer to look out and think, ‘Wow, I remember when we shared that Bar Mitzvah,’ or, ‘I remember that child with special needs who is now an adult and look at that person with their family,’ or, ‘I remember that funeral,’ and you can think of that when you’re writing a sermon and when you’re reciting the Kaddish.
When you can identify those moments and those stories of people’s lives, it’s that rich tapestry of community. So that’s what I love the most, and that gets better with time.
With so much happening in Israel, the Middle East, Europe and in American Jewish life, how do you figure out what to talk about for your High Holiday sermons, and what will be your topic?
I plan to talk about the rise in anti-Semitism and certainly the war in Gaza, and how it’s important for us as Jews to stand with Israel and also to embrace hope.
Hope is really an important theme. Hope in difficult times. There’s a wonderful author who said, ‘Hope is not something that you have, hope is something that you do,’ which I think is really powerful. I think that speaks also to the community and to Am Yisrael, that there’s really a lot that we can do in difficult times to stand with Israel and to look at anti-Semitism and say, ‘This is not acceptable.’
To be able to stand up and ‘do’ is really important and I think that bolsters that sense of hope, that sense of empowerment that we have things that we can do and that we should be doing.