Rabbi Eliott Perlstein Retiring From Ohev Shalom of Bucks County After 48 Years

Rabbi Eliott Perlstein in his office at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

When Rabbi Eliott Perlstein was a student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, he wasn’t sure if he would live long enough to have his own rabbinate.

Perlstein had cancer and was going through chemotherapy. He also was serving as the student rabbi at Ohev Shalom of Bucks County. So even while enduring chemotherapy, Perlstein was living “a dream of mine,” he said.

He still is.

But after 48 years, Perlstein will retire from the Richboro synagogue in June.

The synagogue that opened in 1976 has been his only professional home, and he has been its only rabbi. Like many suburban shuls, it grew fast through the early 2000s, to about 750 households, before falling off to around 400 today.

Perlstein went through this cycle of growth, decline and leveling off. In recent years, he said, Ohev Shalom has seen an increase in young families joining its Hebrew school program. Through it all, the rabbi has led his community with a smile, a welcoming tone, accessible language from the bimah and an open door to his office, as ohev.org puts it.

He never wanted anything more. He was always happy to be at Ohev Shalom’s Second Street Pike home.

“It is a beautiful community,” the rabbi said. “There are beautiful people in this congregation.”

Perlstein is, as ohev.org describes him, a “native Philadelphian.” He grew up in Oxford Circle in the Northeast. His parents were not super religious, though the family belonged to a synagogue. But Perlstein always felt at home in the sanctuary.

There were two other paths he considered.

“One was being a psychologist and one was being an attorney,” he recalled.

But the future rabbi knew he enjoyed public speaking and listening to others.

“The rabbinate encompasses all of those things,” he said.

After he beat cancer and finished rabbinical school, Perlstein became Ohev Shalom’s full-time spiritual leader. The congregation grew from 22 founding families to its early-2000s peak. For more than a decade after chemotherapy, Perlstein visited the doctor for checkups every three months.

The cancer never came back.

“Thank God,” the rabbi said.

Ohev Shalom of Bucks County (Photo by Jarrad Saffren)

At 70, Perlstein is healthy. He walks around the synagogue. His mind is sharp. He feels like he has time left to enjoy.

That’s the main reason he’s retiring, he says. The rabbi has an apartment in Jerusalem, and he wants to spend more time in Israel.

The rabbi and his late wife, Janie Perlstein, bought the apartment before COVID. After the pandemic, Perlstein visited and realized, “I’m either going to do it now or it’s never going to happen.”

“It’s also time to try new things out,” he said.

A congregant once asked Perlstein, “Rabbi, why do you love going to Israel?”

“It’s hard to put into words,” Perlstein said. “If you’re there and you love it, sometimes I just have this amazing feeling like, ‘How fortunate I am to be here.’ Of all the generations of Jews and centuries…such a gift.”

The rabbi and his wife married when the rabbi was already in his 40s. Perlstein has two stepchildren and three step-grandchildren who live in the United States. But he also has friends and relatives in the Jewish state.

Once he goes, though, he will not just stay. The rabbi plans to maintain his residence in Bucks County and his presence at Ohev Shalom. But he also wants to leave space for the new rabbi.

Janie Perlstein gave him a guitar before she died, and he plans on playing it more in Israel.

“Maybe I can come back and volunteer and sing with the kids in Sunday school,” he said.

Perlstein doesn’t want “fanfare” before he retires, Ohev Shalom Executive Director Barbara Glickman said. The community plans on “respecting his wishes,” she added. But not fully.

The rabbi will get a weekend tribute. A Friday night service will feature the Hebrew school kids. At a Saturday Shabbat service and luncheon, members will offer “48 lechayims,” or one-line toasts. A Sunday champagne brunch will conclude the celebration.

“Our community wants to pay tribute,” Glickman said.

Ileene Jaffe, an Ohev Shalom member for 20 years, said the rabbi remembers “everyone and their children.”

Nina Surden, another longtime congregant, said she credits Perlstein for “me being on this earth.” Surden had inflammatory breast cancer back in 1996. Perlstein offered constant encouragement. He also said the Mi Sheberach prayer for her every Saturday morning for a year.

She recovered.

“He was my pathway to God,” Surden said. “And so was this synagogue.”

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