“I have big feet,” said Rabbi Ari Perten when he was asked to tell an interesting fact about himself, during an interview with The Muhlenberg Weekly. He is the newest rabbi of Muhlenberg’s Hillel: The Leffell Center for Jewish Student Life.
Rabbi Ari grew up in Suffern, New York in Rockland County. He grew up in a reform synagogue where he had his Bar Mitzvah. It was not until he was in high school that Rabbi Ari began to consider himself as a member of the Conservative movement of Judaism, and still considers himself as a member of that denomination.
Rabbi Ari said that the type of observance he found in Conservative Judaism allowed him to live the life he wanted, while also giving him the opportunity to be very thoughtful in what he was doing.
“[In m]y sense of Judaism there is the obligation of feeling commandedness in the same way there is in other streams of Judaism and it pairs well with the ability to say that at times the way we understand Judaism and Jewish law needs to adjust slightly based on new social realities, which are the experience of modernity,” said Rabbi Ari.
Although this is what made the most sense for him, he knows that everyone has a different experience.
He was actively involved in Hillel when he was in college and attended a double degree program between Columbia University and the Jewish Theological Seminary. He has two bachelor’s degrees, one in Political Science where he focused in International Relations, more specifically the Cold War, and has a degree in Bible Studies. He also has a degree in Rabbinic Ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and a Master’s in Jewish Education.
Rabbi Ari said that becoming a rabbi was a “pragmatic decision.” After he finished college, although he wasn’t entirely sure what he wanted to do, he originally thought that he wanted a job in public policy.
“As I began to look for jobs, what ultimately dawned on me, was that all the different types of jobs that I was most interested in were within the Jewish community, which led me to make the decision that I would go back to school and get a second degree anyway and that I enjoy having the opportunity to do intensive Jewish study and that rabbinic ordination was a transferable degree,” said Rabbi Ari.
Having a degree in Rabbinic ordination gives people the opportunity to work in a variety of different fields in the Jewish community, without being limited to working in one field, such as being able to work in a Jewish camp and on a college campus.
For the past eight years, Rabbi Ari worked in the Berkshires at Camp Ramah, which is a jewish summer camp. The camp had a staff of between 300-350 people, most of them being college-aged students. Prior to that, he had also served as a Congregational Rabbi in Monroe, New York.
Before becoming Muhlenberg College’s Campus Rabbi and Associate College Chaplain, beginning this past July, Rabbi Ari lived in Teaneck, New Jersey for many years with his wife, his three children, and Max, their twelve-year-old Black Pug.
Over the summer, he moved his family to Pennsylvania where his children attend the Jewish Day School of the Lehigh Valley. His daughter is in sixth grade, his older son is in fourth grade, and his younger son is in first grade.
When Rabbi Ari was searching for an undergraduate school, he never heard of Muhlenberg College, but over the past ten years, he thought its reputation has developed, especially in the Jewish world in which he was a part. He had heard that Muhlenberg is a great school that is known for Jewish life and he knew many past and present students from Camp Ramah.
“There’s a buzz,” said Rabbi Ari.
He said that one of the exciting things he has recognized is that there are people from a diversity of backgrounds on college campuses.
“From people who have grown-up in a highly engaged family doing such things as Jewish Day School, Jewish Camp, and Jewish Youth Group, and there are people on this campus for whom they know Jewish is something they are, but haven’t had much experience with the Jewish community,” said Rabbi Ari. “So, knowing that there is a diversity of different types of people, with a diversity of different needs, is an exciting challenge.”
This school year is a big learning year for Rabbi Ari and he wants Hillel to take advantage of different opportunities. This semester, Hillel has begun doing Traditional Egalitarian Minyan Services, every other Shabbat on Saturdays. Along with this, Hillel is adding different singing opportunities and Shabbat celebrations Friday and Saturday evenings. Hillel is also adding on to the current educational opportunities and building on the success of JLF. They will also be adding other avenues for learning including a Beit Midrash program, weekly Torah study and a dinner for eight program for discussing topics that are not overtly related to Judaism. Hillel is striving to be very thoughtful of crafting engagement opportunities for both Jews who have a significant Jewish background and for people who are less comfortable about Judaism.
“Programs aren’t a goal, programs are a tool towards engagement,” said Rabbi Ari.
Rabbi Ari believes that Judaism has 3000 years of wisdom that help give guidance towards living a life of meaning. He finds it great to help people see how Judaism can help them be thoughtful and intentional in their goals in order to be a better person.
Overall, Rabbi Ari is excited to join the Muhlenberg family.
“We aspire to have Hillel to be a place where all members of the community feel comfortable visiting and I would invite anyone who would like to join us for Shabbat dinner,” he said.