AMHERST – An avid cyclist, Rabbi Saul Perlmutter can often be seen riding his bike to work at the University of Massachusetts Hillel House. But after Aug. 1, the students and staff at UMass will no longer see this familiar sight – Perlmutter, is retiring as director of UMass Hillel after 40 years.
When Perlmutter began his job at Hillel in 1974, the Jewish organization on campus was just a tiny office in the school’s student union.
Today, UMass Hillel is based at the Grinspoon Hillel House, a three-story building that is a true home to many Jewish students at the school. Nearly 70 percent of the 2,500 Jewish students at UMass are involved at UMass Hillel, which has won the William Haber Award for outstanding programming a record six times.
The growth of Hillel, its programming and its outreach, is a testament to Perlmutter’s hard work and dedication over the past 40 years.
“It is amazing he is still around, but also that he has built UMass Hillel up and made it so viable,” said Betsy Bertuzzi of Longmeadow, a former member of the UMass Hillel Board. “Umass Hillel has been very lucky to have gotten him and to retain him… I think it is a credit to the wonderful Five College community that he didn’t want to leave. But again, one would have thought in 1974 that the students of today would not be as connected to a man in his 60s, and they are.”
Bertuzzi marveled at Perlmutter’s energy and stamina. “He’s energetic, enthusiastic, and it is infectious. He has more energy than some young people. And he never seems to get bored or status quo with the job.”
More accolades were directed at Perlmutter at the last UMass Hillel board meeting. After a slide show, more than two-dozen board members and members of the UMass Hillel community stood up and shared their memories of Saul and the impact he has had on their lives.
He was also honored by students at the Senior Service Awards program, and at last week’s UMass Hillel Tribute to Excellence honoring Sen. Stan Rosenberg and Jack Leader, Perlmutter was honored during a “special salute.”
“Over the years I am proud to say that together we have built a flourishing Jewish community at UMass. The operative word here is together – this is a group effort with many wonderful partners,” he modestly told the crowd.
But besides being lauded at these events, Saul specifically asked that Hillel not give him a big send-off party.
“We asked him numerous times and he was very adamant that he didn’t want all that attention,” said Courtney Pupkin, director of development for UMass Hillel. “He was just very modest and didn’t want a lot of hoopla.”
Instead he asked for a “memory book” filled with comments and recollections from students and friends. UMass Hillel also set up a fund in honor of Saul’s 40 years at UMass Hillel, seeking $40,000 for the Israel and community service trips and programming that he has held so dear.
So far, 185 heart-felt submissions have been made to the memory book and $32,644 had been raised as of last week.
Pupkin for one, is sad to see Saul go.
“He is definitely the best boss I have ever had. He is very kind. He cares for you as a person and not just as an employee,” she said. “He lives and breathes Hillel. He is just so passionate about UMass Hillel. I don’t know how he is going to retire.”
Saul said he will continue to serve as rabbi of Congregation Sons of Zion in Holyoke, which he has also done for many years. He wasn’t sure how else he will spend his free time, but he was adamant that he does not want to hover over Hillel House as the new director, Rabbi Aaron Fine, begins his work there in mid-July.
When asked whether he ever thought he would have stayed at UMass Hillel for so long, Perlmutter talked about his connection to the students.
“I remember at some point in my career saying, as long as I felt I could still relate to students, I would stay,” he said. “I can still relate to them, but it is time to start a new chapter.”
A pivotal year in Israel
A native of Burlington, VT, Perlmutter grew up attending Ohavi Zedek, a Conservative temple near where he lived. “We lived very close to the synagogue, as a matter of fact, when I was late for Hebrew school, I could cut through the woods as a short cut to get there,” he recalled with a nostalgic laugh.
That all changed when he went to Israel during his junior year.
“That was a pivotal year in my life,” he recalled.
It was 1967, just after the Six Day War.
“What an incredible experience to be in Israel at that time,” he recalled. “This was the first time in 19 years that Jews had access to the Western Wall. It had been closed off by the Jordanians for 19 years.”
Talking about that time, Perlmutter gets choked up. “It brings up strong emotions,” he explained. “I was in Jerusalem on Simchat Torah for the first time in 19 years that Jews could go to the Western Wall. For hours people were streaming from all over Jerusalem to the Kotel. You would be going through the streets and women on balconies would be showering candy on people. The mizrachi (Arab Jewish) women were [ululating]. People were dancing for hours by the Kotel – religious, non-religious. I had never seen anything like that. It was incredible. You felt like you were a part of history.”
The rest of his time in Israel was spent hiking all over the country, going on archeological digs, working on his Hebrew.
“I could just talk about that year for the rest of the day,” he said.
When he returned home, Pelrmutter decided he wanted to learn more about Judaism and that he probably wanted to work in the Jewish community. After graduating from Brandeis, he attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia. While there he had a full-time job as a youth director at Beth Sholom Synagogue in Elkins Park, Pa. He was ordained in 1974.
By this time he was married to Shoshana Zonderman, whom he had met at Brandeis. When she was accepted at Smith College’s School of Social Work in Northampton in April 1974, the couple moved back to Massachusetts. “She had come to Philly with me, so I followed her lead in terms of the next step in our lives.”
As soon as they moved to the area, the position for the director of UMass Hillel opened up. He applied for it and got it.
“It was Beshert,” he says now.
Perlmutter began working in the 400-square-foot office that housed Hillel. He had a part-time secretary and a council of seven students who helped coordinate programs. At the time, there was no board of directors and 90 percent of the funding for the Hillel came from the B’nai B’rith Hillel organization in Washington, D.C.
“We only had one service, on Friday nights, and we had to shlepp the books to whatever room they gave us. Often it was in the campus center and we had to go through the pinball room. So trying to create any feeling of Shabbat was impossible,” he recalled.
One of the first things he realized he had to do was to create some kind of
infrastructure for Jewish life.
“At that point students came to UMass for many reasons, but I would not say that Jewish life was one of them,” he said. “I think one of the things different between then and now is that there are students who choose to come to UMass in part because of Hillel and Jewish life on campus.”
When Perlmutter got to UMass there was no kosher meal plan. Students could go to him for a letter attesting that they were kosher, so that UMass would let them off of the school’s meal plan.
“A lot of students were doing this and so I thought, this isn’t right. If there were so many kosher students on campus there was an obligation to start a kosher meal plan. I lobbied hard to get UMass to start a kosher meal plan…and to their credit they did. That was major.”
The next step was to build a Hillel staff. With 2,500 to 3,000 Jewish students, Saul and his part-time secretary were just not enough. “Little by little, I built the staff. Now we have a staff of 10 full- and part-time professionals. I didn’t have a vision of what the final staff would look like, but we now have an Israeli on staff, we have an Orthodox rabbi on staff, we have a liberal rabbi on staff, this past year we had someone with a lot of theater and arts experience. So we have a diverse and rich staff. I am very proud of what we have been able to build here.”
One of those new staffers will be Michelle Pomerantz, a 2014 UMass graduate and past president of the Jewish Student Union. “Saul has had an incredible impact on the Jewish students here at UMass,” she said. “Saul is open to new ideas that students bring to him and is always willing to try different programs and events. He is always looking for new ways to impact students and connect with them.”
After building the staff, Saul needed to build a board of directors.
“It became clear that National Hillel, which was B’nai B’rith at the time, could not sustain growth and they encouraged us to start boards,” he recalled. “I went around and asked supporters and others to join and we formed an advisory board that eventually became the board of directors and I am so glad we did. The board has been a pleasure to work with. The people on it are on it not for ego but because they care about Jewish students and Jewish life. They have been supportive personally and financially to the organization.”
“Saul is beloved by all,” said Joe Ackerstein, president of the UMass HIlle House board of directors and a member of the board for six years. “He has been the guiding light and inspiration for 40 years for so many Jewish students, many of whom have become leaders themselves in the Jewish Community. He has a passion and understanding of the Hillel mission and of the Jewish students at UMass…From religious services, community service programs, and innovative ideas as well as the introduction of a permaculture garden this year, Saul has been at the core of the Hillel House and its commitment to the Jewish students on campus.”
In 1985, Perlmutter met with UMass Chancellor Joe Duffy and asked him to help get them a Hillel House. “He said, ‘Send me a memo, and I will see what I can do,’” Perlmutter recalled. “Two years later he called and said, ‘I think I have the place for Hillel.”
The building on North Pleasant Street had belonged to a fraternity that had been shut down. Harold Grinspoon helped Hillel purchase the building, and after some hard work, the building was cleaned up and rehabbed. The Grinspoon Hillel House was formally dedicated in 1990.
“That was a game-changer,” Perlmutter said. “No longer did we have to shlepp books through the pinball room. We could build a Shabbat atmosphere, a Jewish atmosphere. We had our own space.”
Outside of the Hillel House, on the UMass Campus, Perlmutter and Hillel were also having an impact. During the late 1980s and early 1990s, he said, there were times when it could be “uncomfortable to be a Jewish student or to be pro-Israel.” Louis Farrakhan was invited twice to speak by various student groups. When the Boston Globe called to ask Saul for a comment on Farrakahn – seeking a story about discord between Jews and Blacks – Saul worked his media skills.
“I asked, ‘Did you talk to the Catholics, because he says some things about the Catholics too. Did you talk to the gays and lesbians? Because he has some things to say about them. Did you talk to the Muslims? Because not all Muslims agree with what he has to say.’ I said, ‘When you talk to all of them, then come to me.”
In the end more than 800 students protested Farrakhan’s appearance at UMass.
Throughout that time, Perlmutter and Hillel played a major role in making the campus a safe atmosphere for Jewish students. Perlmutter lobbied for a university department that would fight anti-Semitism. He wrote a job description and soon a full-time staffer was hired to run the office for Jewish Affairs. That has morphed into the office for Spiritual Life because, as Perlmutter says, “there is no longer the anti-Semitism there was.”
In 2002, Perlmutter received the New England Regional Office of the Anti-Defamation League’s Tischler Confronting Anti-Semitism Award for helping to rally the community against a series of anti-Semitic incidents in Amherst that spring.
Oh What a Ride!
Perlmutter’s love of biking helped him come up with the idea for the Ride to Provide, UMass Hillel’s annual bike ride to raise funds for Hillel. “It was Saul’s brainchild to do the Ride to Provide,” recalled Betsy Bertuzzi, who became the founding chair.
“He had been there for 35 years or so and he came up with this new great idea which combined not only bringing the general community in to get involved with Hillel, but something that is healthy, and that tied in with the celebration of Sukkot,” Bertuzzi explained. “But that wasn’t enough. He said, ‘I want the money not just to go to UMass Hillel, but to sending kids to do community service projects. It gets the kids excited in a different way. It touches a lot of kids who might not have been going to Hillel, but then they hear about these great trips. It was a win-win.”
Now, Ride to Provide is an annual event that brings teams of cyclists not only from around Amherst, but from throughout Western and Central Massachusetts, to raise funds and to enjoy a scenic bike ride through Amherst during the holiday of Sukkot.
In the past several years, the funds raised by the Ride have sent Hillel students to areas in need of assistance – including New Orleans and Mississippi after Hurricane Katrina, and Israel. Just this past year alone, 180 students went on trips to Israel through Birthright Israel and the Jewish National Fund and under Saul’s leadership.
“The ride was a great idea that fit Saul to a tee—he is a fervent environmentalist, biker, and very dedicated to Hillel, and to the alternative spring break programs which it has supported,” said Craig Kannell, another former chair of Ride to Provide.
Kannell met Perlmutter when he moved to Amherst in 2005 and his family joined Sons of Zion. “He knew I shared his love of biking, and asked if I would help organize the Ride to Provide when he first came up with the idea six or seven years ago,” Kannell said.
“Saul is joyful, approachable, open-minded and down to earth. At Sons of Zion, he shows this enthusiasm in the way he leads services and interacts with the congregants of all ages,” Kannell said. “When my younger two boys had their bar mitzvah’s there, my family and out of town guests couldn’t stop talking about how genuine and warm he was.”
He referenced the garden in his speech at the Tribute to Excellence.
“I love seeing the students working in that garden. I love seeing their joy in helping their garden grow. I can anticipate the great satisfaction they will experience in tasting the first fruits of their labor, and sharing it with others,” Saul told the crowd. “Like those students, my experience at Hillel has been a labor of love…It has brought me great joy and satisfaction to see our students and our community grow and flourish. Thank you for being my partners. Thank you for enabling me to experience a full and rich harvest.”