Serving elders becomes calling for Reutlingers spiritual leader

In a society that idealizes and worships youth, it is rare to find those willing to devote their lives to guiding the elderly to the end of their lives with dignity.

The Reutlinger Community for Jewish Living in Danville believes it has found that person in Rabbi Debora Kohn. Kohn has received rave reviews since becoming the community's full-time spiritual leader in October.

"She is terrific. She's loved by everyone here," says 85-year-old Isaac Sternklar, a resident of the Reutlinger Community for the past two years. "She's a real mensch."

Rabbi Dan Goldblatt, who serves on Reutlinger's board of directors, says the caring that Kohn shows toward the residents proves that for her it is not simply a job, but a calling.

"This is a very special rabbinical challenge," says Goldblatt, who leads the nearby Beth Chaim Congregation. "The challenge is that you have to really love serving elders, and Debora does."

While this is Kohn's first position as a rabbi — she was just ordained last year — she says she feels at home at Reutlinger and hopes to stay there for a long time. "My feeling is like I have my shtetl here," says Kohn, 46.

The connections that Kohn has made with the nearly 175 residents at Reutlinger was evident on a recent afternoon as she walked through the hallways, greeting each resident she saw by first name. "I feel that the elders give us so much and are thrown into isolation," she says. "This is my way of giving back."

Kohn admits there are two difficult aspects to her job: when residents die, and watching them lose their health and mental skills. "It is hard, but I feel that I receive double of what I give," says Kohn. "It's amazing the sense of loving and caring that I get."

For instance, when the rabbi was suffering from a cold recently, she found her office filled with boxes of tea, scarves and get-well cards. For Kohn it's like having multiple Jewish mothers and grandparents, who often tell her at the end of the day: "Be careful when you drive. We need you." Sometimes they'll even say: "You shouldn't wear that short skirt."

Kohn grew up in Argentina and moved to Israel when she was 18 to study at the Hebrew University, where she received a degree in education and Jewish studies. Eighteen years later, she returned to Buenos Aires and worked at the rabbinical seminary there as head of teacher training.

"I think that all my life I wanted to be a rabbi but there wasn't an opportunity when I was younger," says Kohn, who noted that there were no female rabbis in Israel or Argentina.

Following her arrival in the Bay Area in 1997, Kohn trained as a chaplain. It was during her work with sick people at UCSF Medical Center that she realized she loved pastoral work, providing spiritual care to people in serious need.

Kohn says she has learned many lessons in her short time at Reutlinger. For example, since the average age of her congregants is 85 and many have arthritis in their fingers or don't see well, Kohn must pause at Shabbat services to give them time to turn to a particular page in the prayerbooks.

"Time here is different," says Kohn. "Everything here is slower. It is teaching me to take life slower."

In addition to having an open-door policy in her office, Kohn has lunch with community residents every day and often stops in the hallways to sit down and talk informally. "They realize I pay attention to who they are," she says. "I don't hesitate to say you look tired or not well."

Mostly, Kohn says she loves to ask residents questions and hear stories about their families, when they were young or the state of their medical conditions. "Our culture is very much to see someone in a wheelchair and not to ask why," she explains. "But they want us to ask."

She has also learned not to expect stories to always follow a linear pattern.

"It's learning to be present in the moment and letting go of results," says Kohn. "Sometimes I don't get the whole story but that's maybe not the point."

To create deeper connections with community members, Kohn tries to make the teachings in her weekly Torah study classes relevant to their lives. When Moses repeated the same phrase several times in one passage, for instance, she initiated a discussion about forgetting and remembering. She tried to convey the message: "Accept yourself the way you are today and not feel angry and sorry for what you've lost."

Few Jewish retirement homes provide the spiritual support of a full-time rabbi, but the Bay Area has two who have found their calling in serving elders. Rabbi Sheldon Marder has been the spiritual adviser at the Jewish Home in San Francisco since 1999. At Reutlinger, according to Goldblatt, Kohn has infused the community with Jewish spirituality in a very short time.

"For Debora it's really the work of her soul," he says.