Two regional rabbis are celebrating milestone anniversaries on their respective pulpits this year.
Sara Rae Perman, of Congregation Emanu-El Israel in Greensburg, is marking not only the 30th year of her rabbinate, but her 25th as the spiritual leader of the Westmoreland County congregation.
To the south, Victor Urecki of B’nai Jacob Synagogue in Charleston, W.Va., is marking his 25th anniversary there.
Perman, whose congregation recently celebrated her two milestones in addition to her 60th birthday, is a Reform rabbi, while Urecki, 50, was educated at Yeshiva University and now describes himself as a “traditional” or “post-denominational” Jew.
Serving congregations some distance from any major urban area, both rabbis described how their rabbinates have evolved over the past quarter century as their congregations have also changed.
Perman, for instance, noted she is placing more emphasis on adult education these days as the number of young people in her community declines.
“We have a lot less children in the religious school,” she said, noting that the next b’nai mitzva won’t be until 2013. “I’ll have two that year [but] there were a couple years [in the past] when I had eight or nine a year.”
And Urecki described how his traditionally observant congregation has evolved to reflect the changing demographics of Charleston Jews.
For instance, several interfaith families now attend his synagogue when 25 years ago, “it was very rare,” he said. “Now that’s the norm.”
He also said the level of worship his members express runs the gamut from liberal to Orthodox.
That diversity among his members is not something he created, Urecki noted. It already existed.
“When I came here, it wasn’t like I head to reinvent the wheel, it was already there.”
Beyond the synagogue walls, Perman and Urecki are taking their rabbinates to the larger communities in which they live. Perman has taught religion at Seton Hill University and has participated in activities at the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education, which is based on the Seton Hill campus.
In Charleston, Urecki has twice delivered the commencement address at Charleston Catholic High School, where his own daughters attended and his wife teaches. He has engaged in religious forums with Christian clergy and the imam at the University of Charleston, and he hopes to develop a regular meeting of Jewish, Christian and Muslim clergy during which each studies the others’ religious texts.
“Those different eyes looking at different texts really enrich our understanding,” Urecki said.
One program he’s particularly proud of is his Thursday Talmud study sessions, which, at first, he held, not at the synagogue, but at a downtown Charleston coffee shop. Many times during those classes, customers would overhear the discussion, recognize certain biblical phrases or parables and even pull up chairs and join the group.
Today, several members of his weekly Talmud class are non-Jews.
“We did that so people would know it’s not this weird book they’re hearing,” Urecki said. “They would listen in and we would invite them to join us.”
Perman has a novel project of her own coming up. She plans to teach Judaism gastronomically.
The eight-session class, called “The way to the heart of Judaism is through the stomach,” which begins Dec. 11, will look at Jewish food, kashrut (kosher) and blessings before and after the meals.
“There’s actually hands-on kitchen time,” she said of the course, which is based on a model developed in Pittsburgh. “I’m really excited about this course.”
But not as excited as she is about the way she has spent her past five summers, studying at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem.
“It renews me in ways I can’t explain. It just totally, totally renews me,” Perman said. “I’m still on a high from Israel.”
Last summer, she said she studied the influence of Israeli music, the treatment of Jesus and Christianity in the Talmud and she visited an “urban kibbutz” in a Jerusalem slum that supports the poorest of Jerusalemites without government support.
These experiences, she said, influence the sermons she gives her congregants when she returns to Greensburg, and influence how she reads certain books of the Bible, such as Jonah and Daniel.
“I see my job as a teacher and sharing my love of Judaism,” she said. “Whether it’s the littlest kids or adults in the congregation the mission is the same.”
Both Perman and Urecki preside over communities, which, due to declining numbers, must make greater efforts to keep Jewish life alive and vibrant.
In Charleston, many of Urecki’s 200 families also belong to Charleston’s other congregation, Temple Israel, which is located just a few blocks away along the Kanawha River.
“They want both congregations to survive,” Urecki said, adding that Charleston “is a community that’s been around since the 1800s and has tried to maintain Judaism in an isolated area.
“How cans we give up on that?” he asked.
The same is true in Westmoreland County, according to Perman, where several of her members also belong to Temple Beth Am in nearby Monessen, and Perman herself leads Shabbat services at Beth Israel Congregation in Latrobe.
(Lee Chottiner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)