Arthur Oles, longtime Mt. Zion chaplain, dies at 79

One morning, Rabbi M. Arthur Oles was visiting a Jewish woman in the hospital when he noticed her non-Jewish roommate struggling to eat a piece of bacon for breakfast.

The Orthodox rabbi, who wouldn't eat pork himself, went over to her bed, cut the bacon and fed the hungry woman.

Such acts weren't unusual for Oles, who worked for nearly a quarter century as a Jewish community chaplain based at San Francisco's Mount Zion Hospital before retiring in 1993.

The rabbi died on Wednesday of last week of a heart attack after struggling with Alzheimer's disease for nearly a decade. He was 79.

He was "a man of chesed, of lovingkindness," said Eva Oles, his wife of 54 years. "He made people feel dignified…He had a tremendous warmth and ability to relate to people."

After living in San Francisco for nearly 25 years, the couple moved to New Jersey four years ago to be closer to one of their daughters.

Oles died in a Somerset, N.J., nursing home. Services were held last week, and he was buried in the Shalom Cemetery in New Brunswick, N.J.

Oles' career took several unusual twists. Despite his Orthodox rabbinic training and practice, he earned a Ph.D. at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College and served briefly as a spiritual leader at Berkeley's Reform Congregation Beth El.

As a chaplain, Oles found his path.

In a 1979 article that he wrote for the Jewish Bulletin, Oles described his philosophy of caring for the sick and their families.

He didn't see his primary role as one of praying or of relaying "the ultimate sad tidings." Instead, Oles wrote, a rabbi-chaplain is a "friend, that is to say, he accepts the humanity of people in times of crisis without judging and without meaningless platitude."

Oles continued, "I do not say, `Don't worry,' because I am not the one who is threatened by illness; I do not say, `Everything will be all right,' because I can neither predict nor control the outcome. I do try to provide for needs that are not usually filled by hospital professionals, but above all, I try to accept the patient as he is."

Born in Munich, Oles left Germany to study in a Swiss yeshiva at age 16. Five years later in 1939, he followed his family to New York to escape the Nazis.

In 1944, he married Eva Schindler. They had lived around the corner from each other for years in Munich, but had never met. They finally were introduced in New York's Boro Park at the home of Oles' childhood rabbi, who had also left Germany.

Oles graduated from Yeshiva University in New York, where he was also ordained an Orthodox rabbi in 1947. He was a student of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik, the leading theologian and halachic expert of the modern Orthodox movement.

As a new rabbi, he served at several Orthodox congregations on the East Coast. Oles then made a unique choice for an Orthodox rabbi. He enrolled at the Reform movement's Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, where he earned a doctorate in medieval Hebrew literature.

From there, he headed west. After serving a Seattle congregation, he led Berkeley's Congregation Beth El from 1962 to 1964.

He then headed a congregation in Southern California, before returning to the Bay Area in 1969 as the Jewish Welfare Federation's community chaplain based at Mount Zion Hospital. He worked in that capacity until he retired in 1993 due to his increasing problems with Alzheimer's.

While living in San Francisco, he was a member of Adath Israel, one of the city's Orthodox congregations. He also was a treasurer of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

Oles purposely chose to work in different Jewish settings.

"He was a very eclectic rabbi. He didn't believe in labels," his wife said Monday from her New Jersey home. "He was definitely an Orthodox Jew. But he believed that you could draw people into Judaism by being more flexible…He firmly believed in the value of making people more Jewish by making them feel welcome."

Oles influenced a number of Berkeley youths to become more observant during his two years at Beth El, she noted.

He was also close to the Reform movement, in part because of his wife's family. Her brother is Rabbi Alexander Schindler, a top Reform leader.

Rabbi Jacob Traub, spiritual leader of Adath Israel, said Oles had an "interesting style" as an "old-time classical chaplain."

"He was Germanic in background, which lent a certain air to his ministry…but at the same time, he was a funny guy. It was a rare occasion when he didn't have a new joke to tell," Traub said. "He was also scholarly."

In his role as a chaplain based at Mount Zion, Oles visited Jewish patients in other hospitals and in nursing homes.

But he especially influenced Mount Zion, which was founded by the local Jewish community in 1887.

Oles, for example, convinced Mount Zion to establish a kosher kitchen, which remained in place until after the hospital merged with UCSF in 1990. He also began a program and lecture series in Jewish medical ethics at Mount Zion.

"He did a lot of sensitizing the staff at Mount Zion to the special needs of the Jewish patients," his wife said.

In addition to his wife Eva, the rabbi's survivors include his daughters, Miriam Oles of New Jersey and Dr. Deborah Oles of Los Angeles, and six grandchildren.

Contributions in his honor can be made to the Goldman Institute on Aging, P.O. Box 591150, San Francisco, CA 94159, or to the Jewish Community Federation, 121 Steuart St., S.F., CA 94105.