COVER STORY: Ignited by Judaism: Peninsula firefighter finds passion, pursues rabbinate

In a strange way, tragedy has brought Paul Shleffar to a place of joy.

After some 20 years as a firefighter, moving from one crisis to another, he has embarked on a new journey to become a rabbi.

For the 46-year-old Shleffar, studying for the rabbinate is a natural extension of his former career. Being a firefighter or policeman means witnessing pain and death, and each person has his or her own way of dealing with it.

“For me, it’s a need or want to understand it, to make sense of it, if that’s even possible,” says Shleffar, a Redwood City resident, “and to help others begin to heal from it in whatever way they can.”

The worst part is dealing with the life-threatening medical emergencies. There are happy cases — like the time he saved the life of an eight-months-pregnant woman who had stopped breathing — but more often, they’re not.

“The hardest for me are the teenage shooting victims,” he says. “They are so senseless. You see these kids who bleed out right in front of you. It’s such a waste, it’s just wrong. I don’t know what to do with that.”

Shleffar admits he’s not sure if he believed in God during his early years of firefighting. “You numb yourself,” he says. But in later years, as he began developing his spiritual side, he found God in even the greatest of tragedies.

“Seeing death firsthand on a daily basis and being involved in people’s lives when they’re in pain brings you a certain perspective on death,” he says. “You have to have a theology around that or otherwise you’re one of those people who builds up the walls. You have to explore it in some small way and come to make peace with it.”

For Shleffar, finding God in such situations has meant being present as a witness when he believes a person’s soul leaves his or her body — often when there is no family member or friend around.

“It’s a birth, not only a death,” he says.

His journey from firefighter to rabbi was also spurred on by a very personal pain: the death of his paternal grandfather, who, along with his paternal grandmother, practically raised him.

Though Shleffar is a third-generation native San Franciscan, his family moved south when he was a baby, and he grew up in Northridge. His father left the family when he was young, and his paternal grandparents, who lived nearby, stepped in to fill the void.

“I don’t know if it was a love of Judaism, but I got from them a sense of ethics and morals,” he says. “They were examples of goodness and unconditional love.”

Shleffar, who had been ruminating on the meaning of his grandfather’s death in 1998, believed that his last link to Judaism died along with him.

“I realized I didn’t want to break that chain, that I wasn’t willing to be that last link,” says Shleffar. “I was the link from their Jewish past to the Jewish future, and I couldn’t ignore that anymore.”

A hospice worker suggested Shleffar look into Chochmat HaLev, the Jewish meditation center in Berkeley. Shleffar, who had never meditated before, started attending Shabbat services and sitting-meditation sessions.

“Meditation opened up the Jewish practice to me,” he says. “It was a missing piece, and one fed the other.”

For the first time in his life, says Shleffar, “the prayer went from being dry and rote to where I could sense, in a small way, the presence of the divine.”

Soon after, in 1999, Shleffar enrolled in Chochmat’s three-year program to become a certified Jewish meditation teacher, during which time he continued working as a firefighter. He graduated from the program in 2002.

It was the study of Chassidic texts that really grabbed him.

“That was the well I wanted to draw upon for the rest of my life,” he says. “I’m amazed there’s this wisdom in our tradition that, for the most part, is hidden away and it’s so needed right now. Part of my mission is bringing that out. That’s what I’m supposed to be doing.”

Chaplain Bruce Feldstein agrees.

“It’s curious to me, as I watch his life unfold, to see him moving from a profession of fighting fires — of extinguishing and preventing physical fires — to one of igniting fires, at least showing and sharing the fire of Torah and Judaism that has been ignited in his own heart,” says Feldstein, director of the Jewish chaplaincy program at Stanford University Hospital, where Shleffar volunteered.

“My insides were on fire with this stuff,” Shleffar says. “I couldn’t get enough.” When Avram Davis, a Chochmat HaLev co-founder and spiritual leader, suggested he become a rabbi, “it was like a bomb went off inside me, like ‘of course.’ I couldn’t sleep that whole weekend,” Shleffar says.

It seemed a perfect fit to Davis. “Paul has a very compassionate, spiritual heart, meaning he seeks a deeper connection with the divine,” he says. “And he wants that kind of wisdom not just for himself, but to share with other people.”

In his last year of firefighting, Shleffar was in the curious position of combining his old career with studying for the new.

While his fellow firefighters would watch TV together in the evenings, Shleffar would study — an often-difficult task because of the frequent interruptions. And he would wake before everyone else to recite his morning prayers and lay tefillin, which he has been doing for about four years.

Shleffar didn’t share much of his extracurricular activities with his firehouse comrades, but he wasn’t entirely alone; a colleague was studying to become a Catholic deacon.

At first he felt a bit conflicted about working on Shabbat, but he consulted a few rabbis who immediately put his mind at ease.

“That work is permitted, since it’s saving a life,” says Shleffar, who put off housework tasks until evening.

Shleffar’s move toward observance has been slow and deliberate. Though he celebrated a bar mitzvah, Judaism did not play a large role in his upbringing, which he describes as “weak Reform.”

During his rather difficult adolescence, Judaism was completely absent. He admits it could have been useful.

“I was in a lot of pain,” he says, “and it would have helped, but it wasn’t there. It could have been a little bit of light in the darkness.”

After finishing high school, Shleffar moved to the Bay Area with his mother and sisters. His evenings were spent taking college courses, and his days were spent painting roads and street signs. He then got a pilot’s license, working in plane maintenance until he and an uncle went into business importing vegetable seeds from Asia.

He married at 23, and although his bride wasn’t Jewish, Shleffar oddly enough thought it was important to have a rabbi perform the ceremony.

He became a firefighter shortly after his first son, Joshua, was born in 1982, but not because it was some great calling or the fulfillment of a childhood dream. Not wanting to be like his own absentee father, Shleffar saw it as a way to be around when his kids were growing up, with several days off at a time.

Son Benjamin was born in 1985. “I wanted to see my kids not only on evenings and weekends,” he says. “I wanted to be much more involved.”

He joined the force in San Mateo in 2000 after years firefighting in Modesto.

One of his favorite aspects of the firefighter’s life is the camaraderie in the firehouse. “It’s like a big family,” he says. “It’s not just like going to a job and then going home. You’re with these men for extended periods; you know them on an intimate basis and are working with them as a team.”

But as Shleffar delved deeper and deeper into his Judaism, the greater the chasm grew between him and his wife. Although he doesn’t blame his renewed interest in his faith completely as their reason to divorce, he does think it played a large role.

“I’ve gone through a huge period of growth and awakening, so there are those who just don’t get it and those who are excited for me.”

While his sons think their father’s life transition is odd, it has been gradual, so they’ve had time to adjust. Shleffar says he’s tried not to be “in their face” about it, but when Benjamin sees his father wearing a kippah, he’s been known to make a face.

“It was never a huge change; it just kind of crept up on me,” says Benjamin, 18, adding he has tried to be supportive. “I admire him, but I think it’s strange.”

Shleffar didn’t raise his sons in a particularly Jewish way, but when Benjamin came to him at age 13 and said he wanted a bar mitzvah, Shleffar agreed. Although Joshua wasn’t interested, Benjamin became a bar mitzvah at age 15 at a Reform synagogue, which permits children of Jewish fathers to celebrate such rituals without converting.

An injury and the complications from the surgery that followed in 2002 forced Shleffar to go on disability, giving him more time to pursue his studies. Now in his second year, he’s been spending two full days a week in Los Angeles at the Academy of Jewish Religion in Los Angeles, which is not affiliated with a particular movement.

The injury forced him to retire early, though he is still four years away from the usual retirement age for firefighters: 50. But the timing of his disability was oddly fortuitous; before his injury, he was exactly five years away from retirement, and rabbinical school takes five years.

The injury also allowed him another benefit — a full mustache and beard, which he was not allowed to grow while on the force.

Shleffar is still unsure where his spiritual journey will lead him, but believes the right course will reveal itself in its own time. Spiritual guidance and pastoral care are what appeal most to him, but he’s open to other possibilities. He feels fortunate to have the pension of the fire department, so he can truly follow his heart.

Meanwhile, Shleffar visits the graves of his grandparents in Santa Cruz often. When asked what they might think about his career change, he says, “I think they’d be really overjoyed.”

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Alix Wall
Alix Wall

Alix Wall is a contributing editor to J. She is also the founder of the Illuminoshi: The Not-So-Secret Society of Bay Area Jewish Food Professionals and is writer/producer of a documentary-in-progress called "The Lonely Child."