Dr. Isaac Perle

June 15, 2023

Lasting Impact

A Conversation with Dr. Isaac Perle

M. Brejt

A few months ago, I woke up in excruciating pain. I desperately needed an emergency dentist appointment but couldn’t get a slot in any of the practices I called.

Then someone suggested Dr. Perle. To my surprise, Dr. Perle himself picked up the phone and graciously squeezed me in that very day. During my visit, I was impressed both by his professionalism and by his mentchlichkeit.

But it’s no surprise. Because Dr. Perle isn’t just a dentist. He isn’t just a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s not even just an askan who’s been working on behalf of the community for over 50 years. Dr. Perle is an individual who sees the needs of the klal and the people who are part of it.

Most importantly, he’s someone who first and foremost is looking to make a kiddush Hashem.

The backstory

Dr. Perle credits his parents, R’ Bendet and Chaya Sarah Perle z”l, for imbuing him with a sense of responsibility to the klal.

“Everything I am comes from my parents,” he says. “My parents were both Holocaust survivors, and all they cared about was rebuilding Klal Yisrael. I remember my father speaking at my nephew’s bar mitzvah. He said, ‘I never understood why I survived. When I look around this room and see my children and grandchildren, I understand.’

“My parents cherished giving tzedakah. My father actually benefited more from the people he gave to than they did. His pleasure was helping those in need.

“I am what they created. So much of what I do is to satisfy that memory of what my parents did for others.”

The impact of a chavrusa

I ask Dr. Perle about his dentistry practice, but he quickly turns the conversation to a topic that is much dearer to him.

“I was one of the those who went to college right after mesivta, learning during the day by Rav Feivel Cohen and then Rav Leib Rotkin. In 1978, after undergraduate school, when I was in my senior year at the University of Pennsylvania Dental School, I was looking for a chavrusa to do the daf with.”

Dr. Perle reached out to Rabbi Avraham Levine, rav of the Lower Merion Synagogue, and asked him if he knew of someone who would be willing to learn with him at 6 a.m. “It needed to be morning because if it was at night, I would have canceled too easily because I needed to study.”

A day or two later, Rabbi Levine called him back and offered to learn with him. The chavrusashaft lasted from September 1978 to May 1979, with the two covering most of Mo’ed.

Years later, when Rabbi Levine was niftar, Dr. Perle drove to Philadelphia to be menachem avel. Although he had visited the home every morning for months, since he had learned with Rabbi Levine early in the morning while the rest of the family slumbered, he had never met them. He introduced himself, and mouths dropped open.

“Izy Perle?” a son exclaimed. He stood up. “My father talked about you his whole life! He started daf yomi because of you! So many people came to his shiur and finished Shas because of you!”

Dr Perle was floored. He had never had any clue, never dreamed that his actions had had such a deep imprint.

“That was the lesson to me,” he reflects. “You never know when you can have an impact without even knowing.”

Dr. Perle would know about impact. Making a difference for Klal Yisrael is his modus operandi.

“What will make Hashem prouder?”

Although Dr. Perle started daf yomi early on, it took him years until he finished the whole cycle. In 1997, when the siyum was on the horizon, Dr. Perle was determined to attend.

“I would be on vacation with my kids when the tickets would be going on sale, so I asked my friends at the Agudah if they could do me a special favor and sell me tickets in advance.”

As the days passed, heading to the grandest siyum yet, Dr. Perle’s excitement increased—until it was shattered by a phone call from Rabbi Laibish Becker.

“We’d like to have a hookup in Boston for the siyum haShas. Can you run it?”

“I was in a quandary. But then I asked myself, ‘What’s more important? What will make Hashem prouder? My personal sipuk or Boston having its own siyum haShas?”

I can guess the end of the story even before he says it: Dr. Perle gave away his tickets and set about the task of making the upcoming siyum in Boston as magnificent as he could.

“There were 650 people there that day. It was the largest Torah gathering in the history of Boston.”

Looking back, as hard as it was, the decision was simple—when a Yid can do something for the klal, where does personal pleasure come in?

It didn’t end with the 1997 siyum, though. “When I finally did make it to the siyum at MetLife Stadium in 2020,” Dr. Perle says with a chuckle, “they asked me to be a media spokesman, so I spent my entire time giving interviews in the press box.”

A profession of chessed

Dr. Perle conducted research at Harvard for a year and a half after graduation and then taught there for six years. He lived in Brookline for many years and was involved with the community on all levels—as a member of the chevra kaddishah, the head of the local Agudath Israel branch, the president of Torah Academy, a gabbai of the Bostoner Rebbe, and a ba’al tefillah on Yamim Nora’im. Additionally, the local kollel was founded in his home. He shared a special relationship with the Bostoner Rebbe Rav Levi Yitzchok Horowitz.

But perhaps the greatest example of Dr. Perle’s work for the klal is his nonprofit dental clinic in Eretz Yisrael. In fact, the ability to create awareness about that project was what compelled the busy dentist to agree to this interview.

“Shortly after I got married, my parents took my wife and me on a trip to Eretz Yisrael. My parents had donated a classroom to the Gerrer talmud Torah, so we went to see it.”

As a new dentist, Dr. Perle’s attention was naturally drawn to the mouths of the little boys in the classrooms, and he was dismayed to discover that many of them needed extensive dental work.

“Their teeth were black!” he says.

Distressed, he questioned the principal, who painted a dismal picture. Dental work is expensive even for middle-income families, and most families couldn’t afford the prevention that’s necessary for the maintenance of their children’s teeth.

Dr. Perle graduated dental school in 1979, and the idea was born in 1981. By 1985, a nonprofit dental clinic in Yerushalayim was set up. The goal of the Luba Slome Dental Center is to provide high-quality dental services to anyone who can use it. The clients pay a reduced fee which doesn’t cover the cost of care, and the deficit is raised by Dr. Perle.

The clinic started off with two dentists treating 80 patients a month; the budget was a mere $80,000 per year.

Today, the clinic has a staff of over 30 and a budget of $1.3 million. At this point, the clinic has treated anywhere between 5 and 10 percent of Yerushalayim residents. The clinic is currently getting ready for a move for which Dr. Perle has to raise $250,000 for renovations.

“This is what I’m most proud of. I can have an impact on Klal Yisrael in an unusual way, a way that’s needed.”

There’s the word is again—impact.

The early days of Agudath Israel

A dental clinic in the States, another abroad, and teaching in a university aren’t enough for Dr. Perle; he discharges his community obligations with extensive involvement in Agudath Israel.

“I’ve been involved in Agudath Israel since I was a small child. I started a Pirchei branch in Belle Harbor and became a national vice president.”

His involvement was such that at the tender age of 19, he was invited to speak at the Agudah convention.

In later years, while living in Boston, he became the director of the New England branch of Agudath Israel.

Dr. Perle shares his memories of story that is etched in the minds of anyone who was alive at the time.

When Suri Feldman went missing in a state park in 1994, the frum world stopped everything to daven and go look for her. It was Thursday night at 11:00 when Dr. Perle received a phone call from Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel. Suri had been missing for two days already, and while the energy of the hunt was just as strong, hope was starting to fade.

“I have Rabbi Sherer here,” Rabbi Zwiebel informed Dr. Perle. “Mr. Feldman just left my house. He was crying.”

Since 90 percent of the park was located in Connecticut, it was the Connecticut police department that had taken charge, and it was that section of the park that they were searching. But Mr. Feldman was convinced that his daughter was in Massachusetts. And the Massachusetts police wouldn’t get involved without the Connecticut police asking for assistance. Someone needed to put pressure on them.

“We need you to get involved, Izy,” Rabbi Zwiebel said. “This is your area, your jurisdiction. You need to get them to look in Massachusetts.”

Dr. Perle immediately started making phone calls. The clock had struck one when, with the help of others, he finally had an agreement with the Massachusetts police, who said they would start looking first thing the next morning.

At 10:34 a.m. on Friday, Suri was found.

Role models in askanus

As he speaks, Dr. Perle’s admiration for Rabbi Sherer is a running theme. To him, his image is the model, the ideal of what an askan should be.

“Rabbi Sherer was unique because he didn’t just care about the klal. He didn’t just see the big picture. He saw the individual. He noticed all the people who make up the larger entity. He was able to focus on all of Klal Yisrael while never losing sight of the yachid.”

Askanus on a grand scale can look glamorous and exciting. Flying to Washington and rescuing the frum community from dire crises appeals to both the imagination and the ego. But one who is genuinely invested in the klal will embrace the opportunities for chessed that receives no accolades.

“We all want to invite roshei yeshivah to our homes,” Dr. Perle comments wryly. “But most of us aren’t interested in the quiet person in the back of the shul. It takes the rare person to see him and bring him to his home.”

Dr. Perle traveled to Washington many times together with other askanim in the company of Rabbi Sherer, and the memories of Rabbi Sherer’s tireless efforts are indelibly engraved.

“I remember my first trip to Washington, sitting in the largest briefing room in the White House. Rabbi Sherer stood up and said emotionally, ‘Look around. Fifty years ago, we couldn’t get fifty rooms away from the White House. Now, we are in the inner sanctum.’

“What he left out,” Dr. Perle says, “is the fact that the incredible change was due to his own tireless efforts.”

Rabbi Sherer’s tenacity inspired many of Dr. Perle’s decisions.

“There was once a meeting in Washington shortly after I had an unfortunate ski accident,” Dr. Perle relates. Encumbered by a brace, he had an easy excuse to sit out the trip. But he couldn’t disappoint Rabbi Sherer.

“I knew he wanted someone there to represent Massachusetts. I couldn’t even bend my leg. I had to sit in the front row at each meeting. But I knew Rabbi Sherer appreciated it.”

There’s something unique about being moser nefesh for Klal Yisrael, Dr. Perle muses. “I think of Rabbi Chaim Dovid Zwiebel all the time. He graduated law school at the top of his class. He could have earned much more as an attorney than he makes at his current job.”

But Rabbi Zweibel doesn’t have a job. He has a mission. And so does Dr. Perle.

Today, despite his busy schedule and packed practice as well as his pet project, he attends numerous meetings and delegations for Am Echad, an organization founded by the leadership of Agudath Israel to combat the attitude of the left wing in Eretz Yisrael to the frum community.

“It’s important for the Orthodox community to have a say in the narrative, especially regarding issues that affect us. I flew to Eretz Yisrael recently to meet with the government on an issue regarding the Kosel as well as other issues.”

Stand up to the call

The atmosphere in Lakewood differs greatly from that of Brookline, and Dr. Perle weighs in on the benefits and disadvantages of both.

“It’s two different worlds. In Boston, there are so many ways to get involved with the core of the community. You can help out in a major way.”

On the other hand, “Lakewood, at its core, is all about Torah. My learning has increased tremendously since I got here. I learn Bavli and Yerushalmi. At Pine River, I have the opportunity to daven with roshei yeshivah, with chashuvim, people I look up to—even though they’re much younger than I am,” he adds with a wink.

In regard to askanus, although Lakewood’s size seems to preclude the need for the individual to get involved, workers are desperately needed on behalf of the kal. However, due to the community’s size, there’s a hierarchy and a bureaucracy in place, which deters many from stepping up to the plate.

“People don’t feel as needed here. They’re just one of many. It saddens me sometimes. I see so many talented people who could step up to the plate, who have the kochos.”

With numerous local organizations on the ground, one might not see the need to start their own or get involved with one that already exists. But as Lakewood continues to grow at an incredible rate, the need for help only increases.

Another deterrent is the lack of sense of community. “It’s vital for us to create that feel of a community, so people want to get involved. Personally, I think of myself as just a regular guy, but I always say that even a regular guy can change the world. If only one person reading this article is inspired to work for the klal, then this interview was worth it.”

Where is the best place to start?

“Speak to your rav. Find out what you can do. There’s no lack of opportunities; you just need to be on the lookout for them. Don’t wait for other people to do it. Be the Nachshon ben Aminadav. Our goal in this world is to make a kiddush Hashem.”