Two new rabbis join Bay Area Jewish Healing Center

Sign up for Weekday J and get the latest on what's happening in the Jewish Bay Area.

Within a seven-year period, Rabbi Miriam Senturia lost an uncle and an aunt to cancer and an infant niece to a brain tumor.

"I have had a lot of experience with just how painful chronic and terminal illness can be for the person with the illness, as well as for the people who love them," the 39-year-old rabbi says.

It is that experience starting in 1979, that in large part led Senturia to the field of Jewish chaplaincy and healing, and ultimately to Ruach Ami: Bay Area Jewish Healing Center in San Francisco.

"It's very meaningful to me to be with people who are facing these kinds of losses," she says.

Senturia recently joined the staff of Ruach Ami along with another rabbi, Eric Weiss. Together, they replace Rabbis Nancy Flam and Amy Eilberg, who have left the center for personal reasons — Flam has moved to Northampton, Mass., with her husband and two children; Eilberg recently married and will split her time between here and St. Paul, Minn., where her husband lives.

Rabbi Jeffery Silberman, director of pastoral care and education at UCSF/Mount Zion Medical Center and the Bay Area's Jewish community chaplain, will remain on the Ruach Ami staff.

The center serves ill and dying Jews and their caregivers through a variety of programs that link healing with Jewish spiritual tradition. Among them are hospice care, healing prayer services, spiritual support groups and an information and referral service.

For her part, Senturia sees the 5-year-old Ruach Ami continuing in the same direction — with a few additions. She hopes to enhance outreach to Jews suffering from mental illness, which she has experienced close-up through a manic-depressive family member.

Her new counterpart, Rabbi Eric Weiss, has already made an addition to the center by instituting monthly support groups for Jewish physicians.

"There's been a lot of emphasis on patients taking responsibility for their health and wellness, exploring ways to work with their illness and utilizing their spiritual and Jewish resources," he says.

"I think it's also exciting [when] caregivers appreciate those resources — in their own lives, and in their practice as well.

"That way, in the physician-patient relationship, there's a dialogue that goes on."

A Los Angeles native and graduate of the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College, the 39-year-old Weiss has completed a one-year residency program in chaplaincy at California Pacific Medical Center. At the San Francisco hospital, he has provided pastoral care to Jewish patients and staff, supervised life-cycle events and trained clinical pastoral-education students.

Weiss says he found himself drawn to healing work for "the vibrancy of the relationship with someone who is searching in this way, [for] the truth-telling and the openness."

Senturia also appreciates the bare-bones truthfulness that can come of working with ailing clients and their loved ones.

"What I hope to bring is a listening ear and a listening heart and the ability to sit with people in the place of their loss and their anguish," says the rabbi, a former chaplain at Thomas Jefferson University Hospital and the hospital of the University of Pennsylvania, both in Philadelphia.

"There's part of us that wants to get people to feel better when they feel lousy," Senturia contends. "But what people are often so hungry for is someone who can sit with them where they are."

For Senturia, the road to the rabbinate and Jewish healing has been somewhat unconventional.

She grew up in Lake Jackson, Texas, a small, not-so-Jewish town southeast of Houston. After receiving a degree in chemical engineering from Texas A&M University, she worked as a researcher at Chevron Corp. in Richmond, ultimately getting involved in air pollution control.

After several years in environmental engineering, she found herself dissatisfied with her professional life. "I couldn't keep doing engineering work because it wasn't meaningful to me," she says.

Increasingly meaningful to Senturia at that time was her growing exploration of Judaism and Jewish spirituality. Ultimately, she decided to attend the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Philadelphia, during which time she undertook her first chaplaincy stint, volunteering at a nearby nursing home.

"In the process of doing that work," she says, "I really discovered how satisfying it was to be in that role of helping people to connect."

Leslie Katz
Leslie Katz

Leslie Katz is the former culture editor at CNET and a former J. staff writer. Follow her on Twitter @lesatnews.