For three years, Rabbi Sheldon Marder held a prestigious position as director of the Reform rabbinical school in Los Angeles. But when his wife, Rabbi Janet Marder, was offered a pulpit in the Bay Area, he encouraged her despite the shift it would mean in his own career.
In the end, he decided to use the move to open a new door for himself. That door led to San Francisco's Jewish Home, where he became its full-time rabbi last month. Now he is guiding residents in their twilight years rather than students whose lives are just getting started.
Marder acknowledges the major shift, but believes his rabbinic knowledge and sensitivities are just as pertinent to seniors as they were to students at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion.
"I went to teach the [Jewish Home] Bible class for the first time last Wednesday morning with the same notes I've taken to teach other classes at HUC to grad students," Marder reported. "I bring to them everything I know and have as a rabbi and teacher of Judaism. In some ways, there's very little difference."
In other ways, of course, there are differences. Because of the ages of the Home's 450 residents, Marder is likely to deal with more suffering than he would as head of a congregation or school.
"What I need is to find the strength within me continually to deal with the deaths that occur, the number of people who are ill," Marder said.
In addition to counseling residents and their families, he said he wants to help staff deal with the grief of seeing residents fall ill or die. "I hope to help staff find some sort of closure to their feelings."
Marder replaces Rabbi Malcolm Sparer, who retired as the Home's part-time spiritual leader in January.
When Janet Marder was offered a job as senior rabbi at Congregation Beth Am in Los Altos Hills earlier this year, Sheldon Marder was confident he would find a position suited to him.
Work at the Home may prove emotionally draining at times, but after several weeks there, Marder also calls it invigorating. "I love learning from [seniors'] experiences. They have quite incredible stories to tell. I think that's the primary thing that has attracted me to older adults — what I learn from them."
The 49-year-old rabbi has worked with seniors before. He comes to the Home with more than 30 years of social work, rabbinic and teaching experience in nursing homes, hospitals, colleges, synagogues and social service agencies. His decade tenure at HUC-JIR included positions as registrar, assistant dean and acting dean.
At the Home, he will be responsible for leading services, officiating at ceremonies and providing counseling to the Home's residents and their families.
He recognizes the importance of having a rabbi at the Home, acknowledging that as people age, "they have more time to reflect. While it is true at all ages, it is particularly important at this stage of one's life."
Key to his new position, Marder said, is "the ability to listen and be very patient and try to understand what people are saying and concerned about and afraid to talk about."
Being at the site full time allows Marder a measure of continuity. During services, for example, he often ventures into the congregation with a microphone to encourage discourse on events or Jewish discussions that have taken place at the Home during the prior week.
Last Friday night, several Home residents approached the rabbi to say they'd enjoyed the lively services. "I think it was because of our discussions," Marder said.
Among other goals for the Home, Marder hopes to acquire liturgical material in Russian for the Home's growing number of Russian-speaking residents. He also wants to raise awareness about the Home's needs.
"I want people in the Jewish community to know one rabbi alone does not meet all the of the religious needs of the everybody here," he said. "That's why volunteers are important to the work we do."
Marder chose the rabbinate as a way to blend his many passions. "Social work and literature and teaching were all important interests of mine, and I brought them together in a Jewish context."
He met his wife in a rabbinical school Bible class. The pair will celebrate their 20th wedding anniversary later this month and have two daughters, Betsy, 16, and Rachel, 13.
Marder and his wife are inextricably linked as mates and colleagues. "We seem to be attracted to a lot of the same aspects of Jewish study and the rabbinate," he said. "We understand each other and each other's work needs."