By: Ariel Kahan  | 

Prof. Ronnie Perelis Followed His Passion, and He Doesn't Regret It For a Second

Anyone who has tried to take a class with Prof. Ronnie Perelis knows that there is always an immense challenge: getting into the class. It is widely known that Perelis is one of the most popular professors at Yeshiva University. Students who have taken him leave the class singing his praises. “Professor Perelis is a really knowledgeable and dedicated professor who wants each and every student to succeed,” said former student Yonatan Sturm (YC ‘23). “His extreme passion for teaching and true mastery of the material he relays makes being in his class so enjoyable.” Many other students have had the same reflections. 

Perelis knew that the odds were stacked against him. Although he had been passionate about history his whole life, the risks of a career in academia made him think twice. Academia is a challenging field with high standards and fierce competition. Very few thrive, and many struggle to even find a job. These challenges are intensified by the pressures of living an Orthodox lifestyle and finding a job in proximity to an Orthodox community. Despite these reservations, Perelis took the chance. Today, he lives his dream, raising a family in Teaneck while teaching students at a university where he greatly admires and respects his colleagues and students. 

Perelis is the Chief Rabbi Dr. Isaac Abraham and Jelena Rachel Alcalay Associate Professor of Sephardic Studies at the Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies of Yeshiva University. Additionally, he teaches undergraduate classes at Yeshiva College  and Stern College for Women. His research explores many topics, including Colonial Latin America, Atlantic Studies and Latin American Jewish Culture. Perelis also serves as Director of The Rabbi Arthur Schneier Program for International Affairs, which seeks to promote international understanding and cooperation by providing an educational forum to exchange ideas related to diverse critical issues in our increasingly interdependent world.

Family and past have always been significant to Perelis. He was born and raised in Miami Beach by parents who emigrated from Cuba in 1961 to escape Fidel Castro and the communist revolution. Even as a child, he was fascinated by history and ideas, and remembers a family trip to Toledo, Spain, where he was deeply touched and intrigued by the historical sights. He is the self-proclaimed “guy in the family that knows all the family stories and everything about the family genealogy.” As a child, he switched off between public and private Jewish schools and attended a local Hebrew school when he was enrolled in a school with no Jewish curriculum. He is grateful for the many fantastic teachers he had in elementary school.

After graduation, Perelis spent the next five years in Israel, spending the first two at the now-defunct Yeshivat Hamivtar in Efrat, where he learned under Rabbis Chaim Brovender,  Dovid Ebner, Menachem Schrader and Shlomo Riskin. He cherished his time in yeshiva and considered it a time of growth that opened his mind to many areas of Torah. After yeshiva, Perelis spent the next three years as an undergraduate at Bar Ilan University, where he earned his bachelor’s, majoring in philosophy and comparative literature. 

After graduating from Bar Ilan, Perelis knew that he wanted to be “a scholar in the world of ideas and teaching” but was nervous about the risks of the field. He considered playing it safe and going to law school. However, he followed his passion and applied to a graduate program in Spanish Literature at NYU, to which he was accepted. While studying at NYU, he met his wife and moved to Philadelphia for five years, where he taught Spanish and Jewish History at the University of Pennsylvania. After brief stints at Brandeis and Ma’ayanot, Perelis joined the YU faculty in the fall of 2009.  

Perelis is a big fan of YU. He is thankful every day for his outstanding students and colleagues. When asked specifically what he likes about teaching at YU, he had many answers. First, there is great depth to the Jewish History Faculty at YU; thus, he can teach and explore topics that interest him. Second, Perelis loves that he gets to teach Jewish students with a strong background.“There is something special about teaching students that have engaged with Judaism their whole life and these classes are not a mere curiosity,” he said. “I can teach them things that really matter to their lives.”

Ultimately, Perelis believes he learns the most from his students: “People think the student body is monolithic. I find it to be incredibly diverse with each student coming with a different background, approach and style.” He also understands that his teaching can affect the broader Jewish community, as he believes that his students will be at the forefront of many issues in the Jewish world. 

When asked what the most important thing he learned from his students was, he said, “They appreciate when you push them and that you can teach the same material and always hear something new. Hearing different things from new students confirms my faith in teaching humanities, that I can read the same poem every semester and always have a student point out something new.” 

Perelis knows he was lucky. He reminds all of his graduate students about the risks of entering his field. He encourages them to be smart and responsible. “Have a backup plan and choose a program with a good track record of people finishing and finding jobs.” Perelis also warns his students about the emotional difficulties they will encounter: “You have to remind yourself why you did it and stay grounded; you need emotional support from parents and friends.” Perelis claims he couldn’t have made it through graduate school without his friends and wife. While Perelis acknowledges that there are challenges, he encourages his students to follow their passion: “We need to expose ourselves to challenges and to be successful; you have to take some risks.”

Photo Caption: Prof. Perelis’s classes are often popular among students.