After 31 years, Rabbi Sara Rae Perman is hanging up her tallit. The soon-to-be rabbi emerita of Congregation Emanu-El Israel explained that she is leaving the Greensburg-based pulpit because “it’s time.”
For now, Perman plans on staying in the area “tentatively,” working with her not-yet-appointed successor and remaining active in community causes such as the Westmoreland Diversity Coalition and the steering committee to the advisory board of the National Catholic Center for Holocaust Education at Seton Hill University.
Other involvements are “on the list,” she said, “but at the moment I’m trying to do the work that I have to do, and that’s basically it.”
When Perman steps down from her position on June 30, 2017, much will have changed since she took the Reform congregation’s helm in 1987.
“For one thing, there is a better acceptance of women in the rabbinate,” she said. “When I was applying for the position, there were no other women serving in congregations in Western Pennsylvania. Now there are at least a half dozen women serving in pulpits.”
Also of positive note, she mentioned, is an increase in Hebrew competency at Emanu-El Israel.
“I have seen the congregation become more Hebrew literate in terms of being able to read Hebrew and participate,” Perman said. “There are definitely more Hebrew-reading congregants; they may not understand everything they read, but they are more Hebrew literate.”
Such gains have come with certain losses, particularly in congregational size.
“When I came, it was maybe 120 families. Twenty years ago, we had 50 kids in the religious school,” she said. “We have six kids in the religious school at the moment.”
According to recent estimates, Emanu-El Israel has between 75 and 80 family members. Such downward trends are occurring “across the board,” noted the spiritual leader, who describes the region as “an aging community overall.”
And while the area’s population has matured, certain attitudes have aged as well.
“How the rabbi is seen has sadly changed in many respects,” said Perman. “I don’t think there’s the same respect for the rabbi as leader of the Jewish community. It’s not just about Greensburg, it’s across the community.”
The reason for such shift is unknown, she said. “I don’t know if we did it to ourselves by trying to be warmer or more welcoming. For one thing, there are very few rabbis that I would classify as the great leaders like we used to have.”
Rabbis Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, and David Saperstein, former director and chief legal counsel at the Union for Reform Judaism’s Religious Action Center, have both been “major” leaders, said Perman, but rabbis with the likeness of Arthur Lelyveld, Balfour Brickner and Solomon Freehof are few and far between.
“You’d mention their names and there was such awe and respect from lay people, and they were leaders and willing to take a stand,” she said. “And I’m not saying there aren’t people out there. There’s some wonderful scholarship going on, and people putting themselves on the front lines. But in terms of how we are seen by lay people, it’s different from how the previous generation was seen.”
Only recently has she begun to consider her legacy.
She is currently working with congregants on a “retirement ritual.” The practice, she explained, will include both study and social action. Aspects of it will be similar to the roughly 150 bags that she and congregants prepare biannually for Meals on Wheels.
Perman’s contributions to Greensburg and the Greater Westmoreland area are laudable, said Rabbi Sharyn Henry of Rodef Shalom Congregation.
“I have always looked at Sara as a wonderful collaborator. She made great connections with her neighbors in that part of the city,” said Henry, who went on to praise Perman for her positivity and constantly smiling face.
Rabbi Jessica Locketz was equally effusive in her praise.
“Throughout my years in Pittsburgh she has been a wonderful colleague, a source of wisdom and insight,” said the associate rabbi and director of education at Temple Emanuel of South Hills.
Echoing such sentiment, Henry added, “I have always had a lot of respect for her.”
Adam Reinherz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.