Rabbi Gary Perras said the Ahavath Sholom Congregation needed not only a rabbi, but also a healer. And that’s where the 68-year-old interim Jacksonville, Fla., transplant came in.
The catch is that Perras’ time with Ahavath Sholom is transient, and the vast majority of the congregation has already fallen in love with him. His time will be up July 30, and by that date, the congregation is supposed to have found a permanent replacement.
“He comes to the preschool Shabbat every Friday when there’s no need for him to. He makes time for the kids and they love him,” said Katrina Diaz, a congregant.
Paddy White, Ahavath Sholom’s preschool director, described Perras as being very hands-on with the kids, and as bringing a sense of cohesion to the congregation.
She said he is “doing what he needs to be doing.”
“The children adore him and we all love his heart; I think he has a different heart for every occasion,” White said. “He’s wonderful and I hope they choose someone (a permanent rabbi) along the same lines as him.”
Diana Krompass, a congregant and preschool teacher, said Perras strives to be positive and involved.
“When rabbis leave, they are always leaving an empty hole behind. I hope they choose a new rabbi to fill the spiritual hole [when Perras leaves] and to fill the community,” Krompass said.
Perras served for three years in Jacksonville, Fla., in what normally is a one-year job commitment. The Conservative Judaism Movement’s placement office then called Perras with a job offer in Melbourne, Australia, which he readily accepted. Half an hour later, Perras said, he received a call from Ahavath Sholom, telling him he was their first choice for a temporary rabbi. Perras reconsidered Australia and signed his one-year interim position in Fort Worth in August.
“The gift God gave me is to bring people together, and that’s what I think I’m doing,” Perras said.
The executive director of Ahavath Sholom, Garry Kahalnik, said Perras has brought a new spirit and new approach to their congregation. Kahalnik said Perras has instituted new, unique programming ideas such as tree planting and various concerts. Kahalnik said Perras had “refreshed” the congregation.
During the previous rabbi’s tenure, some congregants left Ahavath Sholom to join the Reform Jewish congregation, Beth-El, across the street.
“It’s like an avalanche,” Perras said, “You can’t stop it.”
Kahalnik said that with any rabbi, some will like the man and his methods, and some won’t.
“With any rabbi leaving, there’ll be people who liked him and are upset he’s gone, but his leaving may bring those who disliked him back to participating,” Kahalnik said.
Perras wasn’t worried; he said he has experienced conflict before.
Before his appointment at Ahavath Sholom, Perras had been at a congregation in Orlando, where he was interim rabbi for an unusually long period of three years.
“The membership of that temple went from 650 to 150 because of strife. But when I left, the number had risen to over 200,” he said.
Kahalnik said Perras was attractive to Ahavath Sholom because of his more than 40 years of background in the rabbinical field and his experience in dealing with congregational issues.
Currently, Kahalnik says Ahavath Sholom in is the “questioneer” phase of finding a permanent rabbi. The congregation is in the middle of putting together its application to give to the Rabbinical Assembly, in hopes of finding a good candidate. The United Synagogues of Conservative Judaism is involved, as well.
Kahalnik said the congregation has a rabbi search committee who is considering factors such as demographics and certain qualities of a potential rabbi in order to “find the best fit.” There are no contenders yet, Kahalnik said, but as soon as the application is posted, he is confident it won’t be long before a long-term replacement for Perras is found.
Perras said the people of Ahavath Sholom had been very cooperative and that the attendance of classes and meetings had increased. He said Ahavath Sholom’s membership was somewhere around 350 families, totaling 125-150 people.
“It’s a great community, full of great people, in a great city,” Perras said.
He said until his time at Ahavath Sholom is over in July, he won’t know where he is heading. He says he has a feeling he may be appointed somewhere on the West Coast, but he isn’t sure.