On Aug. 1, when Rabbi Michelle Pearlman begins her new job at the Jewish Federation of Monmouth County, she will be taking the next step toward fulfilling what she calls “the essence of my rabbinate.”
As director of community engagement, she will be charged with increasing participation in the area’s Jewish programs and institutions, and making lasting connections among Jewish newcomers, the unaffiliated, and those currently active in Jewish life. The federation calls it a “concierge program.”
“Judaism is most fully lived in community,” said Pearlman, formerly religious leader at Monmouth Reform Temple in Tinton Falls. “Personal relationships are the basic building block of sacred community.”
She praised the federation for “taking a very bold step” by “making community engagement and relationship building a priority.”
In her new position, Pearlman will also focus on key Jewish life-cycle services, including chaplaincy and burials. Up until now the federation has had a half-time chaplain. Pearlman said she hopes that “through our own chaplaincy work, plus institutional partnerships with synagogue clergy in the area, and an educated and supported group of volunteers, we can increase the scope of what we are able to accomplish.”
She will also promote existing Jewish identity efforts, including programs for teens and Birthright Israel alumni and parents, and PJ Library, which provides free Jewish books and CDs for young Jewish families.
Acknowledging that community engagement is a “very hot idea right now,” Pearlman said she believes it will be a fundamental element of Jewish life in the years ahead.
“People no longer join Jewish communities because their parents did, or because they feel obligated to affiliate,” said Pearlman, the mother of three children aged nine, six, and six months. “Individuals do not join because of flashy or impressive programming either. People do affiliate with our Jewish community — whether through synagogue membership or engagement with federation and other organizations — because they want to be connected with one another, with Judaism, and with their Creator.”
Ordained at the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College in 2005, Pearlman held a pulpit at Temple Shalom of Newton, Mass., before coming to Monmouth Reform Temple in 2010.
She said the leaders of the Monmouth temple knew of her planned departure since August 2012, when they offered to renew her contract, and she said she intended to pursue other opportunities. Pearlman has been succeeded by interim Rabbi Robert (Bob) Ourach, who will serve the Tinton Falls congregation for the next 12 months (see sidebar).
She expressed pride and satisfaction about her time at MRT. “I had great success working to bring new people to congregational life and also helped to form partnerships to encourage new community initiatives,” she said.
Specifically, she cited the congregation’s channeling of $54,000 worth of gift cards and donations to Sandy victims.
MRT president Jay Wiesenfeld said the congregation marked Pearlman’s farewell with a special service on June 28. “The sanctuary overflowed with congregants wishing her the best in her upcoming opportunities,” he said.