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Floral Park Reform temple gains spirit from new rabbi

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Until two years ago, Susan Burgos, an X-ray technician from Floral Park, attended synagogue services sporadically and mostly on holidays. But now she spends almost every Friday night at Temple Sholom at 263-10 Union Turnpike.

"I feel engaged, like I'm learning," Burgos said before Shabbat services at the synagogue Friday night. "I always get something out of the service when I come."

What brought Susan Burgos and her husband Dennis into the fold at Temple Sholom was Rabbi Jonathan Pearl, whose appointment as religious leader two years ago ushered in a revitalization of spiritual life at the Reform synagogue, according to members of the congregation,

"He's a great speaker," Dennis Burgos said. "He's a warm person, and he makes you feel welcome."

Pam Sabel, the synagogue's president, said Pearl had created a strong sense of community over the past two years.

"Having him has been a great asset, and we have all been enriched," she said.

The revitalization stands in stark contrast to the overall trend in New York City. According to Pearl, Jewish religious life in the city is increasingly synonymous with Orthodoxy, while the suburbs continue to claim more members of Reform congregations. Even Conservative synagogues are healthy by comparison.

"If you look at demographics, it seems that (Reform temples) are flourishing outside of New York City and in some pockets of Manhattan and Brooklyn," the 46-year-old rabbi said. "Otherwise, you hardly see it."

But that has not been the case at Temple Sholom, which has seen an increase in attendance in the two years that Pearl has worked there, according to Sabel.

A native of Queens, Pearl was born in Fresh Meadows and moved to Israel with his family at the age of 14. He returned to attend Queens College and went on to earn a doctorate in Hebrew and Judaic Studies from New York University.

Pearl received rabbinical training at the Academy of Jewish Religion, now located in the Bronx, the only trans-denominational rabbinical school in the world.

Ask Pearl what kind of rabbi he is - Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform - and he inevitably quips, "I'm a Jewish rabbi."

It is a perfect example of his sense of humor, an ingredient he seamlessly mixes with musicality, openness and unabashed positivism to create a unique oratorical style that puts people at ease.

That style was much in evidence Friday during a special service geared to families and children. The rabbi began by talking about freedom, a popular topic around Passover.

"I appreciate my freedom because..." Pearl said, and then asked children of the congregation to suggest answers.

Small hands shot up in the air from among the congregation of 100 or so. Pearl, wearing a dark blue pinstriped suit, white shirt and a garish, multicolored tie, strode back and forth along the front of the small sanctuary like a college professor, calling on individual children. His wife Judith and three children Ayelet, 10, Eithan, 9, and Noam, 3, watched from the front row.

"I appreciate my freedom because I can say what I want about the government," said one youngster.

"That's right!" Pearl exclaimed. "Wow! That's great."

Then Eithan Pearl raised his hand. "I appreciate my freedom because I can do what I want," he said. "If you let me."

Everyone laughed, none louder than Pearl.

"I don't give a sermon," he explained. "I speak with people. I'm teaching and trying to get people to look at a particular prayer, and people feel free to say something."

Many participants at Friday's services also said they were inspired by the music, dancing and singing that are an important part of worship at Temple Sholom.

On Friday night, Pearl accompanied the hymns with a keyboard, while the temple's cantor, Doreen Gemell, led the congregation in a rich, powerful contralto. The congregation sang with excitement, while happily banging tambourines.

"I love music," Pearl said. "I have always felt the deep spiritual dimension that music brings to everything I've done. There's a real and primal connection that music elicits in people."

During the hour-long Shabbat service Friday night, Pearl almost never stopped smiling. But he later said gravity and seriousness have an important place in his services.

"At each different kind of service, those things have a place," he said. "There's a tremendous amount, even within the fun, of seriousness going on. I want people to feel very comfortable, but my interest is also in challenging them."

Throughout the evening, several members of the congregation spoke about their enthusiasm for Shabbat services and the spiritual live of the synagogue. They talked about "vibrancy," "enthusiasm" and a sense of community. But few specifically mentioned God.

That doesn't bother Pearl, who said belief in God is a facile and one-dimensional explanation for what motivates a spiritual Jew.

"It is so easy to talk about God," he said, "but it is so much more challenging to live in a manner that is godly."

Reach reporter Alex Ginsberg by e-mail at Timesledger@aol.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 157.

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