Rabbi Pam leaves congregation she helped found

The voice on the outgoing message at the Baugh home shows the dual identity of so many working parents: One can either leave a message for the rabbi, or find out the details of the upcoming soccer game.

That voice belongs to Rabbi Pamela Frydman Baugh — “Rabbi Pam” to most — who, beginning this month, has a lot more time to devote to her soccer mom duties.

Baugh has left Or Shalom Jewish Community, the San Francisco Jewish Renewal congregation she helped found 12 years ago.

The rabbi, whose son will be a senior in high school next year and whose stepson has recently moved back to the area, said she is “very excited about having an opportunity for my family to come first in my schedule, and for things that I have put off for a very long time, to come first in my life.”

Baugh is also currently serving her second term as president of Ohala, the association of Renewal rabbis. In that capacity, she plans to spend more time with her national colleagues working on issues related to the movement, as well as on writing liturgy for the movement.

Or Shalom began more than a decade ago primarily as a religious school, with Baugh — who was not yet ordained — teaching a handful of children from interfaith marriages. That grew into b’nai mitzvah classes and holiday services and, eventually, Shabbat services with both intermarried couples and Jews who were looking to get re-involved.

The synagogue incorporated in 1992, and has since grown to around 200 families.

Baugh, who was ordained in the Jewish Renewal movement, has a gift for reaching those who have drifted away from Judaism, said one of Or Shalom’s founders, Judy Olasov.

“She took people like me who were basically turned off for one reason or another, and other people who had been raised nominally Jewish, or those with little background,” said Olasov. “There was a way that she brought meaning and spirituality back into what had become very ritual.”

For her part, Baugh said she did believe one of her legacies at Or Shalom was providing congregants with what she called “relevant Judaism,” which she described as “helping people find meaning in Jewish ritual and practice, and helping people to understand that what they are already doing and what they already believe in is very Jewishly relevant.”

Baugh believes another part of her legacy is leaving a thriving religious school, one that was quite controversial at first since it demanded that its students attend only if they themselves wished to, not simply to please their parents.

Olasov said that even though she knew quite a lot about Judaism, she found that she always came away from an Or Shalom service having learned something new.

“Pam is a great spiritual leader,” echoed Ed Reiner, Or Shalom’s president. “She’s not only very knowledgeable in Jewish tradition and literature but she has a very accessible, friendly way of teaching it.”

Added Olasov, “Baugh has a really remarkable ability of being in front of a congregation of 500 people, and speaking as if she’s speaking to each person individually.”

That may be, but Baugh admits she prefers the intimacy of her living room. That’s why she had congregants who were planning lifecycle events come see her in her Daly City home.

Baugh also has been extremely active in interfaith work, forging relationships with many of the city’s clergy members. One Episcopal reverend has regularly attended Or Shalom’s Torah studies.

While she plans to stay involved in that on some level, as the end of her tenure at Or Shalom neared, she was already feeling nostalgic.

“The part that I will miss the most is having this special time with congregants, in crafting their rituals and helping them with their lives,” she said. “For me, one of the greatest gifts of the rabbinate is having these special relationships with people, which are so spiritual on the one hand and so deeply personal on the other.”

Saraleya Schley, a student in the Aleph rabbinical program, will replace Baugh, and David Cohen-Tzedek will replace Baugh’s husband, Michael Baugh, as musical director.

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."