Rabbi ends 40-year run as leader of UMass Hillel
AMHERST — Exactly 40 years to the day after arriving, Rabbi Saul Perlmutter retired Aug. 1 as executive director of Hillel at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, leaving a legacy of growth.
Perlmutter was fresh out of rabbinical school in Philadelphia when he first came to campus in August 1974, and he had a 400-square-foot office in the Student Union where he was the only full-time staff member for Hillel. Four decades later, he left 10 full-time staff members in a 16,000-square-foot building of its own. Hillel’s budget has grown some 40 times the $20,000 per year when Perlmutter started to more than $800,000, largely funded through donations and by Jewish foundations.
Rabbi Aaron Fine of Amherst succeeded Perlmutter as executive director Aug. 1. Perlmutter said that under Fine’s leadership he hopes that Hillel “continues to grow and continues to be both part of the Jewish community and part of the overall campus community.”
He added, “I feel good that I am leaving this place in good shape and a foundation for it to continue to be in shape over the years.”
Formerly a pulpit rabbi at Temple Sinai in Marblehead, Fine, 35, said he is looking forward to bringing his own perspective to the job at Hillel. “My goals are to both come in and strengthen what are already the many strengths of UMass Hillel, and to also bring in innovation and to try and find new ways to engage Jewish students on campus,” he said.
Originally from Amherst, Fine said that he and his wife Emily Fine are thrilled to be back in the Valley.
He added that while Perlmutter will be a hard act to follow, “I think the main thing is for me to be myself and bring my own skills and passion to the table.”
Perlmutter said he is proud of the diverse and pluralistic community he helped foster at the UMass Hillel.
“At the beginning, I would say that most of the Jewish students at UMass came here for many different reasons, but they weren’t Jewish reasons,” he said. “Some of them got involved in Hillel, some did not, but now there are students who select UMass because it is known to have a strong Hillel and known to have strong Jewish student life.”
Perlmutter said that they always begin Shabbat services on Friday nights at Hillel with all of the students there. Leaders of the Orthodox, Conservative, and Reform/Reconstructionist student groups welcome everyone.
After singing a Shabbat song and making announcements together, they split up to hold separate services before coming back together for a group meal.
“The message is we are part of one whole community, and we may do things differently, but are a single community. We start as a whole, we end as a whole,” Perlmutter said.
Perlmutter believes his most lasting legacy will be the influence he had on students over the years. He estimates that over 2,000 students are involved with Hillel in any given year, or about 70 percent of the total Jewish student population.
One day last month, while working in a new permaculture garden outside the Hillel House at 388 North Pleasant St., UMass junior Gila Goldstein said, “Saul is always the first person who welcomes you in to Hillel, he is so friendly and open to new people. He is always there singing along with all of the students on Friday nights. He loves the energy, and he is a very energetic person himself, so its always a really positive experience.”
Natan Theise, who graduated from UMass in May and was gardening with Goldstein, offered a similar perspective. “You come in and he is always there greeting, smiling, and hugging,” he said.
Michelle Pomerantz, 22, also graduated from UMass in May and just began working on the Hillel staff. “UMass Hillel has been such a great place,” she said. “It was great to find a home away from home here, and I loved it so much that I couldn’t leave, so I am now working here.”
She added that Perlmutter “is always really welcoming, lets you come in to his office whenever you want, and he is always here. He is very approachable for students.”
Perlmutter said retiring was a very hard decision. “I love being here, and one of the nice things about this job is that every year it was something different,” he said. “It has grown and changed and I have done so much.”
As a tribute to Perlmutter’s work, Hillel Development Director Courtney Pupkin put together a “Salute to Saul” memory book and fundraiser. So far there are several hundred submissions of stories and memories from Perlmutter’s former students. They will be bound in a book for Perlmutter.
Although he has retired from Hillel, Perlmutter plans to continue as rabbi at the Congregation Sons of Zion in Holyoke, a position he has held for the past 10 years. He is also looking forward to having a bit more time to himself and to spend with his wife.
As for Hillel, Perlmutter said, “It is very gratifying to see something grow, and to be pretty confident that it will continue.”