2016-07-06 / Local News

Cherry Hill native aspires to guide millennial Jews back to the spiritual

MEET MICHAEL PERICE…
By JAYNE JACOVA FELD Voice staff

FAMILY: Parents Eileen and Sal; brother Joe, 28, and sister Leanne, 26

FAVORITE RAPPERS: Beastie Boys and Eminem

FAVORITE SCI-FI TV: “Battlestar Galactica” & “Star Trek: The Next Generation”

FAVORITE NOVELS: Harry Potter Series

FAVORITE BIBLICAL CHARACTER: King David

FAVORITE JEWISH FOOD: Fried Matzah

If you had asked Michael Perice in his teens what he least expected to do with his life, becoming a rabbi would have been second only to playing professional football.

Like too many millennials, he quit Judaism after his bar mitzvah. Perice had plenty of company too in the category of culturally-identified but non-practicing Jew—first as a student in Cherry Hill schools, then at Temple University and into his first career in politics, where he ran campaigns.

Well aware that his biography is atypical for a rabbi in the making, Perice contends that the experience of losing and later finding faith is the fuel to his desire to be a spiritual leader to a generation that eschews traditional communal institutions and identities.

His new job as the student rabbi at the University of Delaware Hillel is the perfect setting to put his theories into practice.

“The great challenge of young rabbis today is figuring out how to bring the millennials back in or to reignite the fire,” said the 30-year-old student at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa.

“My job is to show them how to live individually and Jewishly and to really find what makes them connect to Judaism. For each person, it’s going to be different.”

The Hillel job presents an interesting challenge for Perice, whose mother helps run the family’s Philadelphia-based Jewish funeral home, Goldsteins’ Rosenberg’s Raphael-Sacks.

While in college, he never once attended a Jewish event or set foot in the campus Hillel. In fact, it wasn’t until he was in his mid-20s that Perice grasped that something was seriously missing from his life. That took a career crisis.

“I loved politics and really wanted to help people but it turned out not to be for me,” said Perice, who is single and currently lives in Philadelphia.

While working at the funeral home, Perice gradually reconnected to Judaism. In a way, he was almost captive to receiving Jewish philosophy while listening to different rabbis reflect on life and death.

“I was so impressed and curious and realized I really did not know anything about Judaism,” he said. “Anything I learned when I was younger had kind of eluded me.”

“Rav Google” filled in some gaps on his return flight to faith. Then there was a fateful funeral on a wintry day when, due to snow, a grieving elderly sister of the deceased had no way to join the service graveside. Perice ended up sitting in the car with her, just listening while she talked about her brother’s life. As the service concluded, he asked if she wanted to say the mourner’s Kaddish with him.

“It was a moment that I wouldn’t have believed before would exist in my life,” he recalled. “I felt like it changed me and I realized I love this. I love helping people. I wanted to do this for the rest of my life.”

Soon after, he enrolled in a six-month program in Israel—his first visit—which sealed his fate. Now in his third year of rabbinical school, Perice has been gathering intern experiences. His first year was spent as the educational director of Cong. Beth Tikvah in Marlton, filling in while Rabbi Nathan Weiner, a rabbinical school colleague, was in Israel for the year. Last year he was the director of teen engagement at Beth David Reform Congregation in Gladwyne, Pa. Through working with youth, Perice realized his skill as a rapper had more than just entertainment value.

“In Judaism, we have an oral tradition of passing down stories,” he said. “To me, hip-hop is not a gimmick. It’s a way of adding to our oral traditions.” 

Return to top