Marin woman’s Cahn-do attitude leads her to rabbinate at 55

Two decades ago, Meredith Cahn could never have imagined how completely her life would change.

It was the late ’80s, and Cahn, a native New Yorker, was living in San Francisco and working as the director of the Women’s Needs Center at the Haight Ashbury Free Clinic in San Francisco. She had been raised kosher in a Conservative Jewish family, but hadn’t practiced since her youth. “My husband and I only celebrated Chanukah and Passover, really,” she recalled.

Rabbi Meredith Cahn

Twenty-two years and thousands of airline miles later, Cahn was ordained May 30 in Los Angeles as a rabbi. She had spent the past four years flying to L.A. on Sunday nights for classes at a rabbinical school, then returning to her home in San Anselmo on Tuesdays.

“Southwest Airlines and I have become very good friends,” she said with a laugh.

The story of her return to organized Judaism is far from conventional. But Cahn, 55, who has a master’s degree in public health from U.C. Berkeley, said her renewed faith actually grew quite naturally out of her passions: health and well-being, inclusiveness, feminism.

Her work at the free clinic served as an unexpected source of inspiration. “We were doing a lot of work around cultural diversity,” she said. “And to my surprise it really re-sparked my interest in Judaism.”

In 1992, after she and her husband, Sam Doctors, moved to Marin, Cahn immediately became active in the women’s seder and other women’s activities at Congregation Rodef Sholom in San Rafael.

Within a few years, she became known as the “seder queen,” a role she filled for 13 years. “We adapted the haggadah every year, and they started sending me to Women of Reform Judaism regional conferences,” Cahn said. “And as my involvement grew, I would come back really excited, with all sorts of new ideas, and the sisterhood would always say, ‘Do anything you want to do — other classes, Shabbat services.’ ”

Cahn took on a leadership role in planning what used to be Rodef Sholom’s “alternative” services. “We had 600 people coming — you can’t really call them alternative anymore,” she said.

Around that same time, in 1993, she and her husband adopted a daughter, Olya, from Russia. And all of a sudden, something clicked.

“She had the most beautiful soul I had ever seen,” Cahn said. “And it was the first time I had really noticed that people had souls … It became clear to me that there were more things in heaven and on Earth than I had ever dreamed of.”

Not long after, Cahn attended a presentation at Rodef Sholom called “So You Want to Be a Rabbi?” She left without a shred of doubt. “It was, ‘Absolutely, yes,’ ” she said. “That is what I want.”

She began with an introductory Hebrew class, followed by four years of “commuting” to the Academy for Jewish Religion, California — a rabbinical, cantorial and chaplaincy school on the UCLA campus in Los Angeles.

In the meantime, Cahn — whose thesis took on Jewish attitudes toward disability — also managed to serve as the rabbinic leader for the Bureau of Jewish Education’s camp for families of children with disabilities.

Most recently, while working as a rabbinic intern at Congregation Shomrei Torah in Santa Rosa, she also trained in clinical pastoral education to prepare for her upcoming residency at Alta Bates Summit Medical Center in Berkeley, where she will provide pastoral care to patients and their families as well as staff. It’s a role that will allow the rabbi to continue to blend her spirituality with her background as a health educator.

“Jews aren’t as good at inclusion as we could be,” she said. “One of the most important classes for me was in rabbinic history, to learn how amazing these old rabbis were and yet how flawed they were — especially in relationship to women and people with disabilities.”

“Being able to see how so many of us are so flawed and still have such deep beauty in us,” she said, “and being able to see that beauty, to take a message away from traditions, and then encouraging people to see what’s truly relevant to our lives today … there’s a holiness in that.”

Emma Silvers

Emma Silvers is a former J. staff writer.