By ALAN SMASON
With all of his youthful exuberance, it’s easy to forget that, at 30 years of age, Rabbi Joshua Pernick is now in charge of the oldest Orthodox institution in the Greater New Orleans area, occupying the Oscar J. Tolmas Rabbinic Chair at Congregation Beth Israel.
Rabbi “Josh,” as he prefers his congregants, friends and colleagues to call him, has enjoyed a full month as Beth Israel’s pulpit rabbi and is preparing this weekend for Rosh Chodesh Elul, which signals the period prior to the onset of the High Holidays.
He is also preparing to be formally installed in two weeks with a major Shabbaton weekend being hosted at the synagogue located at 4004 West Esplanade Avenue in Metairie on September 13 and 14.
Like previous Beth Israel Rabbis Uri Topolosky and Gabriel Greenberg before him, Pernick is a recent graduate of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah (YCT) Rabbinic School in Riverdale, New York, the Modern Orthodox yeshiva established by Rabbi Avi Weiss.
Rabbi Yonah Berman, a member of the YCT faculty, will be given the happy task of formalizing the installation. Berman, who is a former pulpit rabbi from Boston, first met Pernick when the latter was working on his graduate degree as a Master in Arts Training (MAT) from Brandeis University and Berman was the rabbi at the synagogue he attended. The two were also coworkers later at the Jewish Community Day School in Boston. As Pernick explains, this was well before he started his rabbinic training.
Born in Nanuet, NY., Pernick also earned a bachelor’s degree in Sociology prior to his graduate work in Elementary Education. Before he answered his calling to the rabbinate, Pernick worked initially for Americorps and then worked as a Jewish day school educator for a total of two years in Charleston, SC. He was also a fellow in a yearlong program administered by the Pardes Center for Jewish Educators in Jerusalem. Following his return from Israel, he taught again for another year as a Jewish educator in Atlanta before applying to YCT as a rabbinic candidate.
As he began to work on the path towards rabbinic ordination, Pernick served as a student rabbi at Congregation Shaarey Tphiloh in Portland, ME. from 2016-18 and then at the Orthodox Kehillah in Durham, NC. from last year until he finished his studies in May.
Along the way he experienced the cold winters of the Northeast and the milder versions in the South he knew from his teaching posts in Charleston and Atlanta. It didn’t take him too much convincing as to where he wanted to spend his time.
“My hope was always to end up back in the South,” he told the CCJN in an interview last month. “So, when this became open, it was something that was very much an opportunity.”
Pernick interviewed with the congregation the first week in February after talking with Beth Israel’s Rabbinic Search Committee. “I didn’t so much know what to expect,” he continued. “I interviewed somewhere cold the previous weekend and it was snowing. I came down here and the people were so welcoming and and friendly. The weather was beautiful. We went down to the French Quarter on Saturday night and got to sort of experience New Orleans.”
To hear him tell it, as a rabbinic student, he was immediately impressed with the city. “I had this feeling as soon as I came here,” he explained. “You come here (and) it’s very clear you are in a place that is unique and that’s something I really appreciate.”
Pernick said it was that feeling of being somewhere unique that drew him here. But, he confided, it’s also the opportunity to contribute in a big way to a small Jewish community and its Orthodox constituency.
But, surprisingly, Pernick’s background was not all that observant. In fact, his father was a Reform rabbi.
“Reform rabbis’ kids are a sort of very interesting bunch because you sort of grow up and at one level you’re really religious because you’re the the rabbi’s kid and at another level you’re Reform. So I spent summers at Camp Ramah, which is a Conservative camp,” Pernick revealed.
He describes two of his siblings as secular, but that’s not the case for his sister. ” My sister and I are both Orthodox. She married a rabbi. She became religious when she was in college before me,” he said. “I was always more religiously leaning. She became very religious very quickly and then sort of settled into a comfortable place.”
It took Pernick a bit longer to decide his choice of becoming a rabbi, something he describes as “a very slow process.”
He said that a lot of his connection to Judaism comes from his mother’s side of the family. His grandparents were Holocaust survivors who met inside a camp. “They went to an old school Conservative synagogue – it was traditional – but they had this very thick Eastern European yiddishkeit,” he said.
Between that and Camp Ramah Day Camp (in Nyack, NY.), which he attended every summer since kindergarten, Pernick said he was most ingrained with the practice of a more observant form of Judaism.
Pernick still has an overwhelming love of teaching and has already finished one course of studies since his arrival, which was a Monday class at 4:30 p.m.
He presently teaches a class on Mondays and Wednesdays at 7:30 p.m. at Congregation Beth Israel and the Uptown JCC, respectively. Classes are a half an hour to an hour and are also accessible through the Internet over Zoom, an application for viewing and sharing video presentations.
An evening class is also being held at the synagogue at 4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays.
In addition, he is in the process of rebuilding the synagogue’s website with the use of a new platform designed exclusively for synagogue use, ShulCloud. This management platform will allow members remote access to the website and will also allow permit seamless billing to congregants and more opportunities for revenue raising.
He is looking to increase the numbers of young families who belong to Beth Israel. “There are a number of young families and young kids and there’s opportunity to grow that out more,” he confided. “That’s an area that’s a passion of mine and that’s for sure one thing I’d like to see more of.”
The rabbi also announced that he is looking forward to continue the “blessing” of working with other Metairie area rabbis at Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation, Congregation Gates of Prayer, Shir Chadash Conservative Congregation and the Gerson Katz Chabad Center of Metairie.
“I’m generally a person who thinks the more collaboration, the better,” he concluded.
RSVPs for Rabbi Joshua Pernick’s Shabbaton weekend on Friday, September 13 and Saturday, September 14, can be made by calling 504-484-5080.