In 1985, a young rabbi made the trip from Worcester, MA to Pearl River, an area of which he had little knowledge, to lead the congregation of Beth Am Temple.
Twenty six years later Rabbi Daniel Pernick is the longest-serving clergyman in the town of friendly people.
This was a remarkable change in the life of a young man who had assured his parents at thirteen years of age that he had no interest in continuing with his Jewish studies. It was also a long way from the suburbs of Detroit where he spent his childhood and teenage years.
“When I was growing up, my family belonged to a reform temple which is the most liberal branch," Pernick said. “We had a separate Hebrew school and a program for Jewish studies. After my bar mitzvah I decided that I did not want to go on with Jewish studies, but I did want to continue with the Hebrew language classes.
“My parents asked me to give it a second chance. In seventh
grade, I still disliked the idea but I began the eighth grade at the biggest temple in Detroit. I had really good teachers so I went on with
both courses of study.”
In 1972, as a high school senior, Rabbi Pernick spent six months in Israel as part of an exchange program. He was captivated by the
country and it had a profound effect on his life.
“I also grew a beard and when I got home everybody called me rabbi,” Pernick said.
Rabbi Pernick received his college education at Oakland University in Rochester, MI and earned a B. A. in Sociology.
“I finished in three years," Pernick said. "At the beginning of my second year I determined that I wanted to become a rabbi.
“I didn’t get in to rabbinical school the first time that I applied to Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. I did get in when I applied again and spent my first year of college in Jerusalem.”
Rabbi is an academic degree and, for a portion of his time at HUC, Rabbi Pernick was a congregational rabbi in Sandusky, OH.
“I served a 'student congregation' at a reform temple. They were a group that was too small to have a full time rabbi,” Pernick said. “Before my graduation from HUC in 1982 I started interviewing for jobs. I got a position as an assistant rabbi in Worcester, MA, a large congregation of 1,000 families, and stayed for three years. I met my wife Ruth in Newton, MA in 1983.”
Today the Pernicks have four adult children, Sarah, Ben, Josh and David. They range in age from 20 to 25. Two go to school in Boston, one lives and works in Manhattan while another lives and works in Charleston, SC.
When Rabbi Pernick decided to leave Worcester there were no openings in Massachusetts or back home in the Midwest. There was a position that needed to be filled in a place called Pearl River, NY.
“I started at Beth Am Temple in July, 1985 and by one month I am the longest serving clergy in Pearl River,” Pernick said.
Looking back on his almost three decades in Pearl River, Pernick
tells of the great cooperation between the clergy and congregations.
“Each year on the Monday or Tuesday before Thanksgiving there is an interfaith service that rotates between the houses of worship," Pernick said. "On several occasions, we have held auctions and a series of adult education classes with the various clergy.
“And, of course there are the interfaith blood drives at Pearl River High School. Also, I will always remember that after 9/11 we had a gathering at the gazebo in the park on Central Avenue. Most of our local clergy were there to express community solidarity. I wanted
to become a rabbi because it is really ten professions in one and you make an impact on people’s lives.”
Beth Am Temple was founded in 1963 and has been at its present William Street location since 1969. It serves 225 families, 90% of which do not reside in Pearl River.
“It is a good central location," Pernick said. "Even though the overwhelming majority of our congregation doesn’t live in Pearl River we are active primarily in this town.
“What we are aiming for is a sense of community in a time when society is increasingly fragmented due in part to electronic communication. We want to build a community which today is
difficult for temples and churches. What a congregation can offer or accomplish has a very valuable place in people’s lives. Today people are very consumer oriented. But it shouldn’t be all about what we get but what we can share with others, how we help others. Not about me but about we.”
Rabbi Pernick added another element that forms his philosophy as a clergyman.
“One of the good things about being here so long is I like to fight stereotypes, whether of Jews or any other races," Pernick said. "With people’s short attention spans it is very easy to stereotype people as opposed to getting to know them as individuals. We are not all the same. After 26 years in one community people get to know you. In general, I want to teach people to accept other people as individuals.
“Also, always question. Whether a rabbi, a priest or a minister, a financial advisor or a doctor. Always ask questions.”