Rabbi Jordan Pearlson, founding rabbi of Temple Sinai, died Feb. 19. He was 83.
At his funeral last Thursday, an estimated 700 people heard the temple’s three rabbis praise their colleague and mentor for his insights, eloquence and ability to connect with people.
“He would touch us not only with guidance and wisdom, but with wit and humour,” Rabbi Michael Dolgin, the temple’s senior rabbi, said in a eulogy.
A native of Somerville, Mass., Rabbi Pearlson was raised in a home of modest means, with two parents and four children living in a two-bedroom apartment.
His intellect was apparent at an early age, and his brothers found it “a challenge” to follow him in school, Rabbi Dolgin said.
He added that an early bout with rheumatic fever affected Rabbi Pearlson’s health throughout his life, but it also afforded him the opportunity to join every book club he could and “sharpen his love of fine music that he would listen to on the radio, hour after hour.
“Learning was part of his life from the very beginning… He had a powerful mind, and a unique character.”
A former religion columnist for the Toronto Star, Rabbi Pearlson also pioneered a daily religious interfaith dialogue on CBC Radio. He was a Canadian member of the International Jewish Committee for Interreligious Consultations, and a board member of the Canadian Council of Christians and Jews, which awarded him its national humanitarian award.
With a background in communication, engineering, psychology and law, Rabbi Pearlson began working as a lawyer before he turned his sights elsewhere.
“The behaviour he witnessed [as a lawyer] was not in the highest traditions of the legal profession,” Rabbi Dolgin said. “He had learned from his father that you had nothing if you didn’t have morality and standards.”
Rabbi Pearlson first came to Toronto as a 29-year-old Hebrew Union College rabbinical student, working with Temple Sinai’s 14 founding families. In the years since, the congregation has grown to become Canada’s second-largest Reform congregation, with 6,000 individual members.
Rabbi Lori Cohen said that Rabbi Pearlson shared “a treasure” with her every day in the form of a story or insight, opening “windows into the rabbinate and into the souls of people in need.”
Rabbi Erin Polonsky, whose family joined the temple when she was four years old, said Rabbi Pearlson set an example by dedicating his life to the welfare of the congregation, the Jewish community and the greater community.
Leo Marcus, executive vice-president of Canadian Associates of Ben-Gurion University, spoke of Rabbi Pearlson’s love for Israel and his work as president of the organization over a 10-year period. During that time, he said, they spoke every workday.
Rabbi Pearlson travelled across Canada to garner support for a BGU distance education program that made it possible for young people who had to work for a living to acquire a university degree, Marcus said.
He travelled the world for BGU and also travelled to take part in high-level interfaith discussions, meeting the late Pope John Paul II on two occasions, Rabbi Dolgin said.
Rabbi Aaron Flanzraich, president of the Toronto Board of Rabbis, told The CJN that Rabbi Pearlson had “vision and perseverance” as founding rabbi of Temple Sinai.
The synagogue is “known as a ‘heimish’ congregation, and he set that tone,” Rabbi Sharon Sobel, executive director of executive director of the Canadian Council for Reform Judaism & ARZA Canada, said in an interview.
Rabbi Pearlson “wasn’t just an intellectual,” she added. “He was a people person… He was extremely beloved by his congregation and his community.”
Rabbi Michael Stroh, rabbi emeritus of Temple Har Zion, said that Rabbi Pearlson, whom he knew for more than 40 years, had “a very good sense of people, an insight into human situations, and good political sense in terms of the situation of Jews in the world.”
Rabbi Pearlson is survived by his brothers Melvin of Boston and Stanley of Connecticut; his children Joshua, Nessa, and Abigail Pearlson-Olyan, and two grandchildren.