Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, was at Brown University Hillel for the High Holidays a few years ago when he met a student named Noah Fitzgerel. Jacobs called Fitzgerel to the bimah during services and was impressed by his passion as he described his upbringing in Northern Virginia.
“Noah said, ‘My rabbi was so amazing. I’m here at Hillel because she planted a love of Judaism within me,’” Jacobs recalls. “So I said, ‘Who’s your rabbi?’ He said, ‘Amy Perlin.’ I said, ‘Of course.’”
Jacobs was in attendance last month at Temple B’nai Shalom’s gala dinner honoring Perlin, who will retire in July after 32 years as the Fairfax Station congregation’s leader. Since the synagogue’s founding in 1986, Perlin, 61, has been a beloved figure at Temple B’nai Shalom and an enthusiastic proponent of the Reform movement, garnering praise for her leadership of the congregation’s religious school. She’s helped to grow not only her own flock but the Northern Virginia Jewish community.
Rabbi Darryl Crystal will begin a two-year term as interim rabbi when Perlin leaves.
A book the synagogue compiled for her retirement is filled with letters from the likes of Hillary Clinton and Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, but sitting in her office on what she calls the congregation’s “nine acres in the woods,” Perlin says the accolades don’t make her as proud a the young people her congregation’s religious school has turned out. Young people like Fitzgerel, who now works at the Reform movement’s Religious Action Center, or the seven members who have gone to Hebrew Union College since 2002 and become her rabbinic colleagues.
As a child, Perlin had no sense that the rabbinate was even an option. Girls in her Conservative Long Island synagogue weren’t allowed to read from the Torah; she learned to roll the Torah scroll from one section to another in secret as girls were forbidden from doing so.
In religious school she developed a passion for Jewish learning and text study, and as a teen she tutored children with special needs for their confirmation.
“I was the valedictorian of my religious school class, and I was never allowed to touch the Torah. I was a Bible contest winner and yet the guys had privileges that I didn’t have. The rabbinate was not an option.”
When she entered Princeton, she planned to become a doctor. But during her freshman year she took an introduction to Judaism course with a former rabbinical school student as professor. On her final paper, he wrote a note suggesting she consider the Reform movement rabbinate.
It was 1974, just two years after Sally Priesand became the first woman ordained by a rabbinical seminary. And with the urging of her professor and a Hillel rabbi, she began to consider it.
“The more I learned about Reform Judaism, the more I realized I was a Reform Jew,” she says.
After graduating from Princeton in 1978, she wasted no time. In 1982, with a master’s degree in Hebrew literature already in hand, she was ordained by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
Jacobs remembers his HUC classmate for the same intellect that her freshman year professor took note of.
“Amy is one of these people with such an extraordinary mind,” Jacobs says. “When it comes to complex issues of theology, she can both understand it and talk about it in a way that makes it relevant to the people around her.”
After ordination she moved to Northern Virginia. In 1986, the brand new Temple B’nai Shalom went in search of a rabbi, according to a synagogue history. So when a number of families approached Perlin, she took on the volunteer role.
With a Torah donated from a congregation in upstate New York, prayer books from the Jewish chaplain at a U.S. military academy and a golf-club-carrier-turned-Torah-travel-bag, the congregation bounced between area churches, hoping to one day have a building of its own. B’nai mitzvah were held at hotels, Perlin worked out of a home office and the roving temple continued to grow.
Finally, in 1994, the congregation broke ground on its prairie-style building. It opened the next year.
“I envisioned what the community could be,” Perlin says. “I committed to the Northern Virginia Jewish community in 1982 and it was one of the most exciting communities because we had to invent ourselves. I think it’s almost too easy in some communities. But this was a communal effort. It’s homegrown Judaism.”
Perlin calls herself as a “passionate and devoted Reform Jew,” and in Israel she hopes to grow the movement’s ranks and acceptance. In 2010, she and her husband, Gary, helped the Israel Religious Action Center — the movement’s Israeli advocacy arm — move to HUC’s Jerusalem campus.
“My dream would be that many secular Israelis would recognize over time that Reform Judaism, a modern and progressive form of Judaism, is an option,” she says.
In her own synagogue, she’s made a point to instill high expectations for religious school students, taking pride in the rigor of bar and bat mitzvah preparation and how many teenagers take part in post-confirmation classes. In some ways, she models post-confirmation engagement after Orthodox communities, with the expectation that high schoolers will continue to be active participants in synagogue life.
“We’ve created a culture where the expectations for young people are clear. Many people think that only exists in the Orthodox community, but it doesn’t have to be that way,” Perlin says. “An Orthodox child doesn’t drop out after bar or bat mitzvah, so it was always clear to me that a Reform community could be the same.”
For students like Fitzgerel, the pre-college classes are meant to instill a strong Jewish value system as the teenagers prepare for college.
“I really left Temple B’nai Shalom as a graduate wanting to continue engaging in Jewish life because of Rabbi Perlin,” Fitzgerel says. “Sitting with other 11th and 12th graders, reading through articles, and talking really candidly about college life and how we’ll engage with the broader world as Jews, those are lessons that have always stayed with me.”
Perlin, a grandmother of six, has no reservations about retiring at this point. She and her husband will split time between the East and West Coasts to be with their two children, she says. And Perlin will devote more time and energy to her nonprofit, the Perlin Family Foundation. She’ll also continue on the HUC-JIR board of governors.
She says she’s leaving Temple B’nai Shalom with a robust endowment and no debt left on the building, “I have had the best career I could have ever dreamed possible,” Perlin says. “This has been the greatest blessing of my life.”