Rabbi Jill Perlman will take over as senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette in July, replacing interim rabbi Steven Chester, who has led Isaiah for a year following the retirement of longtime leader Rabbi Judy Shanks.
Rabbi Jill Perlman will take over as senior rabbi of Temple Isaiah in Lafayette in July, replacing interim rabbi Steven Chester, who has led Isaiah for a year following the retirement of longtime leader Rabbi Judy Shanks.

New rabbi in East Bay has a thing for Temples Isaiah

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Rabbi Jill Perlman won’t have to worry about a slip of the tongue when she leaves her Massachusetts synagogue to take up a new position in the East Bay.

“There’s not that many Temple Isaiahs,” she said. “So it’s really funny.”

Perlman, currently associate rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lexington, Massachusetts, will take the helm at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette at the beginning of July. It’s the culmination of Isaiah’s yearlong search to find a new senior rabbi for the large Reform congregation, and Perlman is looking forward to meeting her new congregants.

“I want to know folks,” she said. “I want to know their stories. I want to know what they’re passionate about.”

Ordained in 2010, Perlman grew up in central Massachusetts and just hit her eight-year anniversary at the Lexington synagogue.

Offering her the job in Lafayette was a “unanimous and very enthusiastic decision” by the Temple Isaiah search committee, according to Jasmine Tarkoff, the temple present.

Perlman will replace interim rabbi Steven Chester, rabbi emeritus of Temple Sinai in Oakland, who spent a year at Isaiah to steer the ship after the retirement of longtime leader Rabbi Judy Shanks. During that time, congregants and leaders decided just what kind of senior rabbi they were looking for — which took a lot of listening, Tarkoff said. The congregation has 904 families, so there were a lot of opinions. But ultimately there was consensus, as well.

“There were certain things that bubbled to the top,” Tarkoff said.

Rabbi Jill Perlman, incoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, reading Torah with a young congregant
Rabbi Jill Perlman, incoming senior rabbi at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, reading Torah with a young congregant

She said Temple Isaiah wanted a confident rabbi, one with vision and a willingness to be collaborative. And Perlman’s ideals also spoke to the community. “We’re also very excited about work she’s done as a social justice champion,”Tarkoff added.

Perlman was one of the rabbis who participated in the NAACP-organized march from Selma, Alabama, to Washington, D.C., on the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act in 2015. Rabbis took turns carrying a Torah scroll, and jointly were awarded the Maurice N. Eisendrath Bearer of Light Award by the Union of Reform Judaism. This year, Perlman spent 10 days in Guatemala as part of Global Justice Fellowship run by American Jewish World Service.

She said she recognizes that same spirit of activism at her new synagogue.

“I think there’s a real search for justice work and that’s something I’m really passionate about, and always have been,” she said.

The Contra Costa County congregation doesn’t change its clergy often. Rabbi Roberto Graetz spent 25 years at the congregation before retiring in 2016, and Shanks was there 26 years before retiring last year (they become co-senior rabbis in 2008). Cantor Leigh Korn has been in the job since 2005 and is staying on.

“Long-time senior rabbinic leadership is amazing for a congregation,” Tarkoff said, adding that the transition period took time and care. “People have to go through a process.”

But once that process was through, there was a firm consensus around Perlman, who was one of three top candidates who traveled to Lafayette to meet the community and put their leadership and teaching credentials to the test.

“Once I put my foot on the ground there, people were so friendly and so welcoming,” Perlman said.

And now it will be her new home. Perlman is preparing for the big step, along with her husband and three elementary school-aged children.

“I’m really excited to meet my ‘new’ Temple Isaiah,” she said.

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.