Sky-high rabbi

In her quest to become a rabbi, Paula Marcus accumulated so many frequent flier miles she should have earned more than free trips. She should have earned her own airplane.

The Aptos resident and long-time cantor at its Reform Temple Beth El had been Southwest Airlines’ favorite customer, commuting to Los Angeles every week for four years to complete rabbinical training at the Academy for Jewish Religion.

After a while, Marcus became a familiar face with the San Jose airport ground crew and local van drivers. She also had more than a few adventures up in the friendly skies.

On one trip, she found herself next to a Pakistani Muslim woman and her grown daughter. “The mother was crying,” recalls Marcus. “It turned out the woman’s sister had just died of cancer. We got to talking and I told them about my work with chevra kadishah (the Jewish burial society). It was a beautiful cross-cultural sharing. We saw how much easier it is to connect on a human level rather than a political level.”

Her years of commuting came to a joyous end May 31 when Marcus was ordained in a ceremony at Los Angeles’ Stephen S. Wise Temple. Now, Marcus is back home at her beloved Temple Beth El, only these days everyone addresses her as rabbi.

“I’m happy, happy, happy,” she says of her suddenly more earthbound existence. “That first Sunday afternoon was very strange. I thought, ‘Now what do I do?”‘

Actually, she knows very well what to do. As the new associate rabbi at Beth El, Marcus is working closely with senior Rabbi Richard Litvak and assistant Rabbi Beth Janus on a variety of congregational duties. She will also continue serving as cantor, just as she has for the past 24 years.

With her busy career, as well as a husband and teenage son at home, Marcus struggled with the decision to become a long-distance commuting student. But her family made it easy on her.

“My son was 11 at the time,” recalls Marcus, “and he said ‘It’s good for daddy and me to spend time alone together.’ But the shlepping was really hard. When you know you’re leaving every week on Sunday, you start thinking about it on Thursday.”

A native of White Plains, N.Y., Marcus earned her B.A. in Judaic studies at SUNY/Binghamton. From an early age, music meant the world to her, especially Jewish music.

She studied with cantors in New York and California, spent a year in Israel and eventually moved to the Santa Cruz area in 1980. After a spell working for various local Hillels, she settled in at Temple Beth El as congregational cantor.

About 10 years ago, she went deeper in her cantorial studies, enrolling for a summer at Hebrew Union College in Jerusalem. But, says Marcus, “What I really wanted was to learn Torah. I had people tell me, ‘You can always be a rabbi who sings.'”

That was the start of a four-year downstate commute and life in what she calls “a parallel universe. My bags were always packed.”

As for Marcus, she never went Hollywood while completing her training. “I never considered moving,” she says. “I wanted to stay in this community with my congregation.”

And they wanted her, too. “Our congregation watched in amazement as she flew back and forth,” says Shani Malin Gazek, a Beth El congregant whose two daughters trained to become bat mitzvah under Marcus’ tutelage. “Now, we’re thrilled to have her as our new rabbi. “

Beth El is honoring her with “Paulapalooza,” a congregational fund-raiser coming up later this summer. “They want to raise $1,000 for each year I’ve been there,” she said.

Which is all very flattering to the new rabbi, but she is clearly more excited about putting her new training to the test, day in and day out. “For me,” says Marcus, “it’s about taking more risks in faith. It’s about looking at the spiritual work I need to do and other people need to do, and doing it.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.