Rabbi Amy Perlin, D.D.
Engaging People of All Ages in Synagogue Life
By Susan Josephs
“You can have it all—career and a wonderful family,” says Rabbi Amy Perlin. In the mid-1980s, she stood out as the only female rabbi with young children leading her own congregation in Virginia. “People assumed it couldn’t be done, and those were tough times, because there were no role models,” she says. “As a mother, I had to figure out how to create the family I dreamed of and the congregation I envisioned could be possible. For me, it was about creating a community my family could call home.”
Twenty-six years after becoming the founding rabbi of Temple B’nai Shalom in Fairfax Station, Va., Perlin, 56, continues to distinguish herself as a pioneering spiritual leader committed to innovation and nurturing others. Believed to be the first woman to start her own congregation, which today has almost 500 families, Perlin has “always tried to understand the bigger picture of what’s going on in the country and how we can meet those needs within the synagogue. I’ve always believed that the synagogue is the premier institution of Jewish survival and a Jew’s primary community of learning and caring.”
With an unwavering commitment to engaging people of all ages in synagogue life, Perlin divides her time among teaching, counseling and innovative “preaching,” drawing upon the drama skills she cultivated as a child to prepare captivating sermons. She’s proud of her congregation’s post-bar and bat mitzvah retention rates, which rank among the best in the country; its commitment to offering a variety of support groups; and its communal willingness to embrace change. It was one of the first synagogues to actively welcome gay and lesbian couples and offer podcast services on iTunes. Currently, the congregation is writing an original prayer book.
Raised in a congregation that did not permit women to participate on the bimah, Perlin spent her summers at Camp Ramah, where she saw how “Jewish women could read Torah and be real leaders.” She also completed a year of high school in Israel, which inspired her to pursue courses in Near Eastern studies, Christian-Jewish thought and Arab-Jewish relations at Princeton, in one of its earliest classes to admit women. “Princeton allowed me to immerse myself in Judaism while also learning about other religions and cultures,” she says.
Perlin studied for the rabbinate at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in New York. “The faculty provided a supportive and nurturing academic environment,” she says. Without a real role model, Perlin has become a mentor to a new generation of rabbis. She just sent her seventh student to HUC-JIR in Jerusalem in a decade, and she is available to colleagues all over the world to offer support.
Throughout her career, Perlin never felt she had to apologize to her two sons, now 26 and 27, for the hours she devoted to her rabbinate. “At different ages, my children had different ways of being involved. The temple was a vital part of all our lives,” she says, recalling how her sons would say good night to the Torahs, which lived in their home during the nine years before her congregation had its own building. Today, her sons and their families are active Reform Jews, deeply connected to synagogue life and Israel.
Passionately committed to philanthropy, Perlin and her husband of 36 years, Gary, have formed a family foundation. They recently made possible the construction of new offices for the Israel Religious Action Center on the HUC-JIR campus in Jerusalem. Says Perlin: “I am so grateful to have the privilege of waking up and making a difference every day of my life.”
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