Growing up in suburban Detroit, Rabbi Daniel Pernick belonged to a temple with more than 3,500 families and six rabbis. Yet something one of the rabbis said to Pernick about all that grandness really stuck with him.
“He told me that while he was thrilled the temple, Temple Israel, had so many families, he thought [the] days he was the rabbi at a much smaller temple in Butler, Pennsylvania, were some of his favorite days as a rabbi,” Pernick said.
“He said that belonging to a temple where you know everyone is not something to take for granted.”
And Pernick hasn’t. He has spent the last 28 years as the rabbi of the Reform Beth Am Temple in Pearl River, currently celebrating its 50th anniversary, and it is definitely a place where everybody knows your name.
“A big reason we’ve been able to stay open for 50 years, I think, is the people,” Pernick said. “We’re a pretty close community, and we’re getting to a point where we have generations of families who have attended the temple. Even the name, Beth Am, it means ‘house of people.'”
Wendy Slotnick, Pearl River, likes the community feel to Beth Am Temple, and grew up in the synagogue. Slotnick’s father, Al Loeb, was the first president of the temple when it opened in September 1963.
“I remember we would have a lot of original members of the temple over to the house for meetings and my mother was constantly making coffee,” Slotnick said. “We had a sukkah in our backyard for everyone one year. The temple has really been a part of my life since I was a little girl.”
The temple’s golden anniversary celebration will take place at 7:30 p.m. on Friday, April 19 during services, and Slotnick said it is open to everyone. During the service, the congregation will read from the diffferent editions of prayer books they have used over the temple’s 50 years.
“It’s interesting to see how they’ve changed over the years,” he said. “You can see them becoming more modern, becoming gender neutral, things like that.”
The evening will include a variety of speakers from throughout the temple’s history. Some will be founding members. The temple started with 23 families, many of whom were turned away from Temple Beth El in Spring Valley, which had a waiting list at the time. Temple Beth El’s Rabbi Louis Frishman was the one who first suggested that those in the Pearl River area start their own congregation, as there wasn’t a nearby option. The congregation quickly grew to 76 families by November 1963.
Beth Am operated out of the Nauraushaun Presbyterian Church at first, also in Pearl River, then moved to its current building in 1969, located on Madison Avenue. Since moving into that space, the temple has undergone two major expansions, in 1979 and in 2001.
The first expansion included building the sanctuary, which is still used today, and new offices, while the old offices were converted to classroom space. The second expansion included a banquet hall, more offices and a new school building, which doubled the size of the building.
“Unfortunately we couldn’t double the size of the parking lot,” Pernick said. “It can get a bit cramped in there at times.”
Pernick said the temple saw slow but steady growth until about 2002, and at its peak had roughly 300 families in the congregation. That figure has since dropped, but Pernick said the temple is holding steady at around 220 families.
“We serve a unique niche in the community,” Pernick said. “We’re small, but not too small. We’re traditional, but not Orthodox. I’d say we’re more traditional than most other Reform temples, though.”
Pernick tries to get its congregants to participate in any way they can, while also making sure they feel comfortable. Music is one way to involve congregants and Pernick said that former Cantor Geri Zeller and current Cantor Marcy Kadin have been quite creative in coming up with melodies people like and with keeping services lively.
“Times have changed and we’re not really in a place where, like in the past, people feel like they have to go to synagogue every week,” he said. “So we don’t want those who are coming to have to dryly sit through the same thing ever week.”
Still, both Pernick and Slotnick think a major reason people come back is the sense of community the temple has fostered, one that most likely wouldn’t be present without the temple.
“We’re in an unusual spot as a temple,” Pernick said. “Many temples are in areas with a lot of Jewish people. Pearl River isn’t an area with many Jewish people, so our members are coming from elsewhere to be here. They aren’t necessarily neighbors. Most of our members come from Rockland. They come from Clarkstown and Orangetown and Ramapo. One-third of our members come from right over the border, in Bergen County [N.J.].”
Another unique figure from the temple, Pernick said, is the number of religious school students who stay on after their bar or bat mitzvahs. Pernick estimated around three-fourths of students continue on.
“We’re not just a place to come get bar or bat mitzvahed,” Pernick said.
Instead, Slotnick said, it’s a place where generations of families can come together. She said she met one of her best childhood friends at the temple, and they both sent their children there, and becoming friends.
“Even if we don’t see each other every week, we come together for holidays to celebrate the good and bad,” Slotnick said. “It’s home.”
The evening is meant to celebrate “who we are and what we’ve done,” said Pernick.
“It’s about teaching, worship and fun. And, of course, we’re telling people to come hungry. There will be some food after the ceremony for everyone to enjoy.”