Sherman began his new tenure as rabbi at the self-described “little shul with the big heart” last month and is excited to be returning “home.”
For Rabbi Charles Sherman, the glass is always full. Maybe half-full sometimes, but, he emphasizes, it is most certainly never half-empty.
Sherman has already begun sharing this optimism with his new congregation at Melrose B’nai Israel Emanu-El in Elkins Park. Sherman began his new tenure as rabbi at the self-described “little shul with the big heart” last month and is excited to be returning “home.”
A Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy graduate, or Akiba as he knew it then, Sherman grew up in Philadelphia and is returning after a 37-year stint as rabbi at Temple Adath Yeshurun in Syracuse, N.Y. He replaces Rabbi Howard Addison.
Growing up an active member of the Philadelphia Jewish community, he went to Camp Ramah in the Poconos for many years where he met his wife, Leah. They have raised five children, two of whom are also rabbis, who now live everywhere from Beverly Hills to London.
When Leah was pregnant with their youngest, their lives changed.
In 1985, Eyal Sherman was 4 years old when he was diagnosed with a lesion on his brainstem. Their son was given just a few months to live, if they were lucky, Sherman recalled. But he wasn’t ready to give up that quickly.
“I don’t accept ‘No,’” Sherman said. “I don’t accept ‘Impossible.’ I go for the jugular.”
After frantically searching for a doctor, they found one in New York whose nickname was the “doctor of the hopeless,” who performed a surgery removing most of the tumor. After post-operation complications, Eyal was left in a vegetative coma for a few months.
When he woke up, he was unable to move, breathe, eat or talk again on his own, but that didn’t stop him.
Today, Eyal is a Syracuse University graduate with a degree in the fine arts and Sherman looks forward to taking his son, who lives with him and his wife, to cultural destinations like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Franklin Institute.
To Sherman, his son, now 34, is “the inspiration for what I do and how I do it — how I see my life and how I see just about everything.”
To answer the questions people would ask about his experience — as well as the ones he would ask himself — Sherman detailed his family’s experience in a book, The Broken and the Whole: Discovering Joy After Heartbreak.
He had many strategies for coping, he said, one of which was — and still is — optimism and enjoying the present.
“I live in the moment of time,” he said. “My accountant is not thrilled about it. I don’t look at yesterday, I don’t look at tomorrow,” he added. “If I look at what I had yesterday, it’ll kill me. If I look at tomorrow and what I may not have, I’ll just wallow in self-pity, so I just celebrate the moment. Today is the best moment of my life.”
His faith is another vehicle for coping, he said, and part of that is the ability to recognize things that happen in life that he doesn’t understand.
The idea of writing a book began as Sherman started taking notes on index cards from what doctors were telling his family about Eyal’s condition.
He began with a first draft that his agent assured him would be a New York Times bestseller. Instead, no one wanted it. He returned to it 15 years later, also unsuccessfully.
Finally, a new agent was able to tell Sherman what he was doing wrong: The book was about him.
“He said, ‘Tell the story up front and share with us what you learned from that experience that can help other people,’ ” Sherman said. “It was the easiest writing assignment I ever had in my life.”
Published by Scribner, the book was released in 2014.
Part of the success of the book, he said, was that its message resonated with a lot of people.
“It’s not really about a sick kid. It’s really about, how do you deal with some of the bad stuff that happens in everybody’s life?” he said.
The experience has made him a better person, he said, as well as a better listener, which comes in handy as a rabbi.
He is looking forward to sharing in others’ experiences and helping them come to terms with what they don’t understand as he once did. Already, he has spent time with congregants and gotten to know MBIEE members, which he would have done even if he weren’t the rabbi.
“If I wasn’t the rabbi of this synagogue,” he said, which he cited as the result of “fate, or God, or circumstance” as he and his family were moving back to Philadelphia anyway, “I would still be a member of the congregation.”
Asking what the biggest takeaway he has learned from everything that has happened is not an easy one to answer. “Gratitude and not taking anything for granted,” he answered, after a long pause.
“Sometimes, there are crises or challenges in our life that become transformative — a wake-up call. They tell you who you are and what you need to be,” he said. “This is what’s happened really in terms of my own life narrative. It’s given me a context of who I am and, consequently, what I need to do in my life.”