For more than two decades, Hazzan Emanuel C. Perlman has spiritually guided Chizuk Amuno congregants through their lives while touching their souls with the soaring sounds of cantorial music.
“When you feel what you are singing, you are praying,” says the cantor. “Prayer isn’t supposed to make you feel good; it’s supposed to make you a better person. I have always relished my gift to be a messenger for other people and to hopefully inspire them to feel they can approach God’s presence and ask for anything within reason — primarily the welfare of other human beings.”
Now, after 21 years of serving the Pikesville synagogue, Hazzan Perlman is preparing for a new role – as Hazzan Emeritus, beginning on Aug. 1, 2018. His retirement comes at a time of leadership change at Chizuk Amuno as the 146-year-old Conservative congregation conducts a search for its next senior rabbi.
“As the congregation has entered into a transitional phase, so have I and my career as a hazzan at the synagogue,” he says. “Becoming emeritus is an honorable way for a clergy and his congregation to feel that we respect one another to the utmost and that the years of service we provided to each other, the familial connections and the growth we have experienced is being honored ceremonially and on the stationary.”
As Emeritus, Hazzan Perlman, along with the choir, will officiate at Chizuk Amuno’s 2018 High Holiday services, as well as at Yizkor services on Sukkot, Passover and Shavuot.
Rabbi Deborah Wechsler, the synagogue’s senior transitional spiritual leader, calls Hazzan Perlman “a gentle human being who wants to serve others and the Jewish people.” Rabbi Wechsler, who has served the synagogue for 20 years, says as hazzan emeritus, the cantor will “do all he can to help the congregation successfully transition to its next era.”
Says Jason A. Blavatt, Chizuk Amuno president: “Hazzan Perlman has continued the auspicious legacy of hazzanim at Chizuk Amuno, while also engaging in the lives of our families. … We have initiated the process of finding Hazzan Perlman’s successor and will do so in a logical, respectful and efficient manner.”
Interventions Without Publicity
Assisting in the transition is a task Hazzan Perlman is more than willing to take on. “The commitment to this institution must be firm and steadfast,” says Hazzan Perlman. “I think the most important thing the synagogue can do is reestablish the team approach that was in place when I first arrived at Chizuk Amuno.”
Hazzan Perlman’s journey to becoming the cantor at Chizuk Amuno started well before he arrived in Baltimore. He was born in Tulsa and lived there for six months before moving to Des Moines.
“We were a singing family,” says Hazzan Perlman, who has three brothers. “Our mother and father had magnificent voices. On Passover, when we would open the door for Elijah, we would see our neighbors standing outside listening to the harmonies that came from our home. Everything was harmonious, from the music to the laughter to our commitment to the communities we lived.”
At 12, Hazzan Perlman moved to Rhode Island where he spent “his formative years.” His father, Cantor Ivan E. Perlman, served at Temple Emanu-El for more than 20 years, and over time his four sons became cantors as well.
“Between my brothers, my father and myself, we have serviced over 1 million Jews,” says Hazzan Perlman. “We became known as the Cantors Perlman 5, and for us the singing never stopped. Even when I become emeritus at Chizuk Amuno, I will find a place where my voice will be heard.”
At Temple Emanu-El, Hazzan Perlman officiated at his first High Holiday services at age 17, alongside that congregation’s Associate Rabbi Joel H. Zaiman. In 1980, Rabbi Zaiman became senior rabbi at Chizuk Amuno and is now the congregation’s rabbi emeritus.
“My whole life has been coincidences,” says Hazzan Perlman. “A coincidence is God’s intervention without the publicity. I say that at every family meeting, and I find coincidences everywhere I go.”
Hazzan Perlman graduated from Rhode Island College with a bachelor’s degree in music and voice, and spent many years serving as a cantor before earning a master’s degree in psychiatric social work from Yeshiva University.
He worked at Long Island Jewish Hillside Hospital as a psychiatric social worker, field instructor, social work supervisor and team coordinator, while still remaining a part-time hazzan.
Over the past 48 years, Hazzan Perlman has served six congregations nationwide, with stops in New Orleans and Syracuse before coming to Chizuk Amuno in 1997.
“Part of the reason I came here was the reputation of Chizuk Amuno as one of the top five synagogues in the country,” he says. “It was considered the Ivy League of Ivy League synagogues. …
“The year I applied to Chizuk Amuno, there were approximately 20 cantorial candidates,” the cantor says. “What seems to have been the trump card for me was the search committee’s knowledge of my psychiatric social work background. Quite frankly, for over two decades, I have spent way more time working with congregants in need than singing prayers on Shabbat.”
Throughout his career, Hazzan Perlman says he has enjoyed the privilege of teaching more than 2,600 students, including more than 1,000 at Chizuk Amuno.
“I have always tried to inspire all of my bar and bat mitzvah students to pursue their dreams and not just settle,” he says. “My goal has always been to teach students that God existed. I’ve tried doing that my whole career and hope I’ve succeeded. When I meet with families, I try to prove the existence of God through divine interventions people aren’t even aware of.”
Messenger of Peace
After becoming cantor emeritus, Hazzan Perlman plans to work full-time on his nonprofit foundation, Destination Peace, which works toward achieving global harmony by connecting people through a common language passed on via music.
Over the past few years, he has met with scores of Christian and Islamic spiritual leaders, as well as the Dalai Lama, on behalf of Destination Peace and other endeavors.
“I believe politicians cannot bring peace to the world, not because they are incapable of it but because people put labels on others and won’t allow them to bring the peace,” says Hazzan Perlman. “It takes a different level of diplomacy. I have come to learn that if you just live your own story and live it to its fullest, the world would be full of believers and the possibility would be greater for people to live together in peace with one another.
“When we promote our differences at the expense of our similarities, we not only doom ourselves but we doom all of our children, grandchildren and future generations to inherit baseless hatred and selfishness.”
Earlier this year, he and his wife, Janice, spent nearly a month in India, visiting more than 30 Hindu temples and countless individuals living in the country.
“I am only beginning to appreciate to a greater extent that you don’t have to be Jewish to love God, but my love for Judaism is innate in me,” says Hazzan Perlman. “I was born into it and I will die with that being the story I live.”
In his next chapter of life, Hazzan Perlman, a father of three and grandfather of three, says his focus may be shifting but his calling remains the same.
“For the last 21 years, I have been a messenger of the congregation and now I’m a messenger for peace,” he says. “This is my community and my home. And come next year, I am hoping to still be a member of this congregation.”
For information about Destination Peace, visit to Destinationpeace.org.
Aliza Friedlander is a Baltimore-based freelance writer.