From Torah to toothpaste, Rabbi Gary Charlestein has many areas of expertise.
Whether he’s coordinating rabbi-led lunch-and-learn sessions or working at his family’s fourth-generation dental supply company, Premier Dental, Charlestein, like his father before him, is busy and engaged on both communal and business fronts.
Ordained as a Conservative rabbi before he entered the family business, Charlestein is active at Har Zion Temple, where, in addition to attending services regularly, he teaches a weekly Talmud class and is on the board of trustees.
“I’m a Jew who enjoys synagogue life,” said Charlestein, a onetime pulpit rabbi who continues his association with rabbinical colleagues via involvement with the Conservative movement’s Rabbinical Assembly.
In fact, it is the Rabbinical Assembly — Mid-Atlantic Region that sponsors the lunch-and-learn sessions Charlestein organizes.
“It’s a great thing,” he says of the Torah study groups, which meet at one of three locations: the offices of Cozen O’Connor in Center City; Congregation Adath Jeshrun in Elkins Park; and in the offices of Premier Dental in Plymouth Meeting.
The classes are usually taught by Conservative rabbis and are typically centered on the weekly Torah portion, but Charlestein is not averse to mixing it up. Sometimes cantors lead classes; other times, Reconstructionist rabbis facilitate.
“Each session in independent and text-based,” Charlestein said. “It’s all quality.”
What’s most rewarding for Charlestein, in addition to positive feedback from attendees, is the way that his colleagues respond to it: Rabbis will call him if he hasn’t reached out in a while, to let him know they’d like to lead another session.
In addition to his lunch-and-learn organizing, Charlestein is on the board of trustees of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia, an organization he supports in various ways. For two years, he was the chair of Jewish Federation’s Foundation of Jewish Day Schools, a cause close to his heart.
“The EITC program has been a tremendous funding boon for our day schools,” said Charlestein, referring to Pennsylvania’s Educational Improvement Tax Credit initiative.
Charlestein is also on the board of directors at Jack M. Barrack Hebrew Academy, which he calls “a blessing for our community” as he rattles off accomplished alumni. “Not to mention my daughter,” he adds proudly of daughter Julie, who’s the president and CEO of Premier Dental.
Julie also attended Camp Ramah, which Charlestein is still devoted to.
“It’s such a huge positive for the entire community,” said Charlestein, who worked on the staff there at various times.
If all that weren’t enough, Charlestein is engaged by philanthropic work tied to Premier Dental through United Way, such as volunteering with Chosen 300 Ministries, which works to alleviate homelessness in the Philadelphia area.
“And we haven’t even talked about Israel!” said Charlestein, in recounting all the causes he’s involved with — though he’s careful to note that there are many people who do far more than he does.
But it’s obvious that giving back comes naturally to Charlestein, whose parents, Morton and Malvina Charlestein, served as an example.
“My mother was a firebrand for the Soviet Jewry movement and for Israel,” he said. “My father was more of an organizational type — he was involved in [Jewish] Federation, in the synagogue.”
Charlestein’s sister, Ellyn C. Phillips, president of the ALS Association’s Greater Philadelphia Chapter, is equally tireless in her volunteerism. Charlestein is especially proud of how his mother and sister worked together to get the Phillies involved in ALS fundraising, establishing an ongoing relationship that’s raised much-needed revenue for research.
Charlestein, who lives close to Har Zion with his wife, Laya, said there numerous reasons for becoming a participant in Jewish community causes.
“Wherever you’re going to invest your time, obviously it should be in keeping with your values and aspirations,” he said, adding that “anyone in their right mind” would find meaningful contribution possible at Jewish Federation. “Because of the breadth of concerns [Jewish Federation addresses], there’s something for everybody.”
Charlestein also noted that volunteers can learn a great deal from their experience, as well as form lasting friendships.
One day, Charlestein would like to live in Israel full-time. He has spent a great deal of time there — including a year studying when he was in seminary — and feels he and the Jewish state share “a very full type of relationship. I’m very happy and very blessed,” he said, to have that kind of connection to Israel.
This article is part of an occasional series of profiles of Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia supporters.
Contact: [email protected]; 215-832-0747
Where is a good place to contact Gary Charlestein?
We were friends back in 1962 – in USY when I lived in Philadelphia. I you do not want to give me his contact info. understood, please pass on this info to him.
Avrum (avy) Ashery
515 meadow Hall Rd.
Phone: 301-279-0648 website: asheryartprograms.com