Rabbi Richard Perlman and his wife, Kit, are the parents of Jessica, Michael, Owen, and Kristina, and proud grandparents of Brady, Bryce, Ezra, Bennett, and Eisley. Rabbi Perlman was appointed as the Spiritual Leader of Temple Ner Tamid on Sept. 1, 2016. In 2019, he assumed cantorial responsibilities. Prior to moving to Peabody, Rabbi Perlman held the pulpit and served as the spiritual leader, hazzan, director of education, and executive director at Temple Am David, in Warwick R.I. He also served as the rabbi at West Bay Community Jewish Center in Warwick. Rabbi Perlman is the vice president of Vaad HaRabbonim of America, the American Board of Rabbis. He also is co-president of the North Shore Rabbis and Cantors Association.
Can you tell me about your upbringing, where you grew up, and your family background?
I was born in Des Moines, Iowa, and grew up in Providence, R.I. I’m the son of Cantor Ivan and Muriel Perlman z’l, and one of four sons who followed in their dad’s footsteps. My father was a World War II Marine veteran. He served overseas, where he received a Bronze Star for Heroism in Iwo Jima. He was a cantor serving throughout the years at the Hebrew Center in Lyndhurst, N.J., Fairlawn Jewish Center, N.J., B’nai Emunah, Tulsa, Okla., Tifereth Israel, Des Moines, and Temple Emanu-El in Providence, where he served for 23 years and was Cantor Emeritus.
My father trained all four of his sons to become cantors while growing up in Providence and Cape Cod during summers. We studied at various Yeshivas and Jewish educational programs. My oldest brother, Rabbi Eli, serves Congregation Beit Shalom in Monroe Township, N.J., as their rabbi/cantor. My brother, Hazzan Emanuel Perlman, is the Cantor Emeritus of Chizuk Amuno Congregation in Baltimore. My youngest brother, Cantor Josh Perlman, serves B’nai Israel Congregation in Rockville, Md.
You and your brothers are unique – you’re all spiritual leaders and singers, and have been performing together for much of your lives.
We began singing together after each meal and especially after each Shabbat or Yom Tov, as dad [and our beloved mother who had a beautiful voice also] led the Birkat Hamazon. As we grew up together and while learning to speak and to read Hebrew, we each took our spot in the harmony pool. With our G-d-given base, baritone, tenor, lyric baritone voices, we sang together in perfect harmony. Over the years, rabbis and cantors would visit our home and when dad began to chant the Birkat, the visitors would join in with us as we began to chant the grace after meals. Within moments, the visiting rabbi or cantor would stop singing, and would sit completely still and silent. They were mesmerized, with tears flowing from their eyes – they became immersed in the sounds and Kavanah of a family singing and harmonizing together like no one has ever heard before. These moments of joy and oneness was the foundation and beginning of the “Cantors Perlman 5.” For years, we sang together, schmoozed together, bantered together, laughed together while sharing our unique brotherly love and respect for each other with congregations, audiences, and people all over the world. We sang, told jokes, and performed in each other’s congregations, and at Yad Vashem and Hadassah Hospital – as well as being featured on PBS.
Music has deeply influenced your life. What does music do for the soul and what Jewish and secular music moves you the most?
I started to enjoy the love of music as a young boy in USY. I learned to play the guitar and brought it with me when our Providence USY chapter would visit other chapters for a Shabbaton weekend in the New England region. In fact, I probably spent more time in Peabody as a member of USY; perhaps I had a sense that this is the place where I would belong eventually, who knows? Beshert? Anyway, leading “creative services” with USY was a great way to dig into religious music. I must admit, I am not moved by the new modern songs and melodies as I am truly moved when I hear the cantorial classics. It’s hard to explain but, when I hear the sounds of the masters of Yossele Rosenblatt, Moshe Koussevitzky, the voices of Richard Tucker, Jan Peerce, and of course, my favorite classical cantor of all time, my father – of blessed memory – I am moved to a place where no other sounds can take me. I love classical Hazzanut especially during the High Holydays, when I have a chance to really bring the congregation back to the traditional sounds the great cantors brought to us. As far as secular music –
I have always been a fan of the Beatles, Eagles, Bread, Elton John, the Stones, Fleetwood Mac, and so many other classic rock groups and artists.
What’s your favorite Jewish holiday and why?
My favorite Jewish Holiday is … All of them. But, if you held my feet to the fire, I guess I would have to say, Pesach. Why Pesach? Because it’s the one time as a congregational leader that I can spend time with the family. We are so busy leading services for all the other holidays, but for Pesach, we are gifted with the ability to lead a Seder with our family. Our grandchildren, children, husbands and wives, and our friends who join us, make Pesach a Holy Day that I truly love. Not to mention the four cups of joy!
This has been a challenging year for all because of COVID. It has upended so much of traditional synagogue life – from communal prayer to Hebrew School to burying our dead. As a rabbi, what are the biggest challenges you’ve had to face this year of COVID-19, and how have you dealt with them?
This has been a trying and challenging time for EVERYONE. However, as I was answering this question, my inbox rang out and I received this message from a congregant. After receiving permission to share, I think this will tell you the kind of year that it has been at Temple Ner Tamid.
TO OUR CLERGY AND LAY LEADERS
The pandemic came when I was still grieving, I’d lost my love only a few months before.
While struggling with the loneliness that had just begun to abate, the COVID crisis caused my office to close and removed whatever structure remained in my life. Our family Zooms and calls with friends helped overcome the silence in my home. Though my children and grandson did my shopping and made sure that I was well, I’ve never felt so isolated. And our temple was my salvation. The daily minyans with chats before lunch and other Zoom sessions kept me connected with a caring world. My office is about to open again. The COVID shots are in my arm, and I look forward to hugging my family and dining out with friends. Were it not for our congregation, its clergy, and lay leaders, this past year would have been unbearable. Thank you for all you’ve given me I shall be eternally grateful. – Arlene Titelbaum.
Synagogues have moved many programs and even prayer services online. Is this part of the evolving American Jewish experience moving forward?
When I became the Spiritual Leader at Temple Ner Tamid, the first year I led a High Holiday service I was told of a temple member who was in a nursing home and could not attend services. He was so upset about this as he had never missed a service in his life. I worked with a former president of our congregation who is also a “techie” and we set up a broadcast to his room so that he could enjoy the service on his iPad. The next year, we offered streaming to our members who could not attend. Then we set up an online school option which put us in the position to not only be ready to go virtual when the pandemic hit, but we were also a resource to others who I worked with to assist colleagues and other Shuls in the area to get online. After the pandemic, I see a “new normal” that will include in-person and online options as the rule and not the exception. If one good has come from this awful pandemic plague, it is that people have learned the value of technology and how to use this to communicate with each other better. They are still working on the mute button, but I have a feeling that even that will be figured out soon.
What’s the hardest part about being a rabbi?
I love being a rabbi. I love helping people, being there when needed and making a difference. Being a rabbi is not a job, it is a calling. The hardest part is knowing that I am only human, and I can’t always be there when someone has a need. I sometimes let people down for whatever reason and that bothers me a lot. I never like to say “no” but sometimes, life gets in the way. That is the hardest part for me.
Membership is a huge issue at synagogues. What do temples need to do/implement to remain relevant to Jews and to grow?
We must continue to offer quality educational opportunities, social opportunities, prayer that includes traditional and modern options. We must have an open mind to change and listen to the next generation. We cannot tell them what they want, we need to hear them when they speak, and program as best as we can to what they are asking for. We must never say, “but we used to” and start to say “OK, let’s give that a shot and work together to reach the one ultimate goal.” That goal is to provide a safe and wonderful place for all families to come to, to get something special out of their lives in a synagogue as they connect with fellow congregants and friends especially as they include and develop a special and unique relationship with our Creator.
When you’re not in synagogue, how do you like to best spend your time?
I love to sit on a beach or by a pool and read. I love walking and smelling the beautiful air that G-d has gifted to us. When I walk, I love to look around and see nature, see the beauty of the world. I love to spend time with my wife and my children, my grandchildren and friends. I enjoy fishing, tinkering with my guitar, and my own and other people’s computers that I repair. I enjoy mowing the lawn on my tractor as this gives me a few minutes to disconnect. And yes, I must admit this, when I am not at the synagogue, and when I am trying to relax on a vacation, I sneak in a bit of work … After all, I love what I do, I love my calling and I love being a rabbi.