Rabbi walks a new beat — entire East Bay community

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"It can be very gratifying," Weiss says of her part-time post. "It's important work because there are many Jews who, for whatever reason, aren't connected more formally with the Jewish community. They might not realize the value of community."

The 5-month-old community rabbi position, sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay, is a concept developed by the East Bay Council of Rabbis and the Berkeley-based Jewish Family and Children's Services, where Weiss' office is located.

After five years as co-rabbi at the Reform Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley, Weiss, 39, was ready to take her rabbinical experience in a different direction.

In addition to serving as a community rabbi, Weiss established an organization called The Jewish Spiritual Development and Growth Center, along with a private "spiritual direction" practice in Berkeley.

She describes the practice as "one-on-one spiritual companioning," not unlike being a spiritual therapist.

"It's about working with people in a much more intense and ongoing way — for as long as the person feels it is valuable," Weiss says. "It's two people exploring spiritual life, relationship to God and prayer life. There's a real hunger in the Jewish community to have a more meaningful spiritual life."

As a community rabbi, a crucial service Weiss provides in addition to spiritual support and guidance is practical help for people who are ill and for families dealing with death.

For example, Weiss was recently referred to a disabled man in rehabilitation at a Concord hospital. The Fresno resident had been away from his synagogue for some time.

"I asked him if he wanted to pray and sing some songs that are part of Kabbalat Shabbat," Weiss said. "He did and I stood there and did that with him. It was very meaningful to both of us."

Occasionally, doctors of terminally ill patients will refer families to Weiss, should they be seeking a rabbi for bedside counseling or to officiate a Jewish funeral.

"I'm not going to push Judaism on them, particularly around illness or death," Weiss says. "I'm really there to serve them."

Usually, Weiss advises people how to get more support from the Jewish community. "I mention that it might be time to check out a synagogue because it's a time when people need others to be present, to bring food and run errands. It's important just to feel that there are people who care beyond the immediate family — if there even is family."

Weiss, a Palo Alto resident, was ordained in 1991 at Hebrew Union College in New York.

As a community rabbi, she does not emphasize any one stream of Judaism. "I go across the denominational spectrum," Weiss says. "I have more than one prayer book. I approach everybody in a broad sense."

She receives phone calls from people who have philosophical questions about faith, as well as inquiries from those looking to join a congregation that would fit their lifestyles and beliefs.

"I try to find out what the person is looking for and what kind of person they are," Weiss says. "Then I determine what's the best fit for them in terms of community."

Weiss said she gets a number of calls sounding like this: "I don't know if I believe in God. I don't even know what God is, and I'd like to have a different experience on how I relate to God. Can you help me with that?"

She sees such calls as a way to build community. "That's my real goal," she said. "They're wanting their Jewish life to be more nourishing. But they don't quite know how to make that happen."