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Ireland’s New Chief Rabbi Finds Challenges in High Profile Post

November 9, 2001
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As the new chief rabbi of Ireland, Yaakov Pearlman has a grand title — but a much smaller community than the one he left in upstate New York.

Rochester, N.Y., where Pearlman was rabbi at Light of Israel congregation, has about 22,000 Jews. In contrast, Ireland has “1,300 to 1,400 maximum,” Pearlman said.

Before Pearlman arrived in Dublin in mid-September, Ireland had been without a chief rabbi for nearly year.

Pearlman’s predecessor, Gavin Broder, left Dublin in October 2000 to become London chaplain of Hillel, the Jewish student organization.

The gap between Broder’s departure and Pearlman’s arrival left the entire country without a rabbi, for all practical purposes, Broder told JTA.

“The chief rabbi is effectively the only rabbi in Ireland,” he said. “It makes the job specification a very big challenge. It’s a 24-hour-a-day job.”

Pearlman found that important elements of communal life had been put on hold in the absence of a rabbi, he said.

“There is a tremendous amount of work that needs to be done in many areas,” he said. “Things have been neglected, and the community suffers. Things we take for granted in the States are not taken for granted here.”

For example, it has been difficult to get kosher food, and conversions have been put on hold. Observant Jews have been importing frozen kosher meat from France.

England has not been allowed to export meat for most of this year due to an outbreak of hoof-and-mouth disease.

Bringing meat in from far away has its drawbacks, Pearlman said.

“It’s quite expensive by the time it reaches the customer,” he said.

The first kosher slaughter of animals in Ireland for more than a year will take place next week, when a shochet — a kosher butcher — is brought in from England.

A slaughterhouse will be made kosher for several days as the shochet slaughters some 400 animals, some for use in Ireland and some for export to England.

At least three young couples with one non-Jewish partner have had marriages delayed because there has been no opportunity for conversion.

“They have been waiting until a chief rabbi arrived,” Pearlman said. “I have to monitor it, sanction what they are doing and recommend them for conversion. It’s a long haul.”

The numbers might not sound significant to American ears, Pearlman said, but “for a city like Dublin, two or three couples is quite a number.”

While day-to-day matters such as kashrut and conversion are important, Broder, the former chief rabbi, sees much a bigger problem facing Ireland’s Jewish community.

His successor has to “try to hold the community together. The community is dwindling and has been for some time,” Broder said.

Pearlman is aware of the problem. He says that the presence of two cities in England with large Jewish populations has drawn young people away from Ireland.

“We have two very strong communities in close proximity to ours. Usually, young couples get married and they move to London or Manchester,” he said. “How do we reverse that?”

The Irish Jewish community is doing its best, he said. It has established a committee to try to attract Jews to Ireland, and lists Dublin’s attractions for Jews on its Web site.

“Dublin is booming. It’s a good place to live and do business,” Pearlman said. And, he added, “In Ireland, overt anti-Semitism is absolutely nonexistent.”

Some Jews have arrived from South Africa, Pearlman said. Broder pointed out that there also is an Israeli community doing business in Ireland.

Pearlman doesn’t underestimate the difficulties facing Irish Jewry, but said he is “optimistic.” He took the job in Dublin, he said, because he was looking for a challenge.

A native of Manchester, England, he became the youngest rabbi in Britain when he was ordained at 20.

He then moved to the United States, where he earned a master’s degree in Jewish history at Hofstra University in New York and a doctorate in education from the University of California at San Diego.

After completing his doctorate, he moved to Providence, R.I., where he held a pulpit for nine years.

Next came 22 years in Rochester, first at Beth Joseph and then at Light of Israel.

“That was a very fine position which I could well have stayed with” until retirement, Pearlman said. “But I reached a point where I was looking for another challenge, and there comes a point in one’s life where there is a drive to go back to one’s roots.”

He contacted the chief rabbi in London, Jonathan Sacks, to ask about openings in Britain.

Ireland hadn’t occurred to him, he said, but he got a call from London asking if he would be interested in Dublin, and he decided to accept the challenge.

Being chief rabbi of Ireland means more than just ministering to the Jewish community, Pearlman has found.

“There’s almost a diplomatic profile, attending functions on behalf of the community,” Broder said.

Pearlman agreed.

“Representation of Jews to the secular world is very important,” he said. “It’s a very high-profile position. People look up to the chief rabbi with tremendous respect.”

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