Having a cup of Judaism with the Coffee Shop Rabbi

This story starts out with a young girl in Tennessee who grew up on a farm that raised cattle and racehorses. Her family gave her a Catholic upbringing, and as a young woman she married a man and had two children. She taught at a Presbyterian church in Memphis.

But in a transformation that gives new meaning to the phrase “You’ve come a long way, baby,” this country girl is now a Jew, and a lesbian — and a rabbi — living an urban existence in the Bay Area. Her name is Ruth Adar, and no, that’s not the name she was born with.

“I took the name because I love Israel,” says Adar, 56, of San Leandro. “I was born in the month of Adar [which begins Friday, Feb. 24], and my Hebrew name is Ruth. As for my old name, I never use it anymore.”

Adar is telling me this at the Ultimate Grounds coffee shop in Oakland. Of course that’s the scene, because in addition to all of the above, Rabbi Ruth Adar is the “Coffee Shop Rabbi.” In cafés from Fremont to El Cerrito, she meets with people who have questions about Judaism.

As for me, I just love hanging out in coffee shops. So when I stumbled upon @CoffeeShopRabbi one day on Twitter, I knew it was a potential interview made in heaven.

A double cappuccino in front of me, a regular coffee in front of her, Adar gives me examples of people she meets with. A woman who just discovered she had one Jewish grandparent wants to know if that makes her Jewish or not. A man who grew up with a mother who always described herself as 25 percent Jewish wants to know where that leaves him. A secular Jew is about to host her first seder and is in a panic.

Adar meets with them and talks things through. “It’s a weird rabbinate, but I love it,” she says. “Outreach is my true love. I feel I’m doing what I was born to do.”

She’d better love it, because being the Coffee Shop Rabbi isn’t making her rich: In three years, she has seen fewer than 50 clients. Plus, her rates aren’t exactly padding her retirement.

“I tell people, ‘Pay me what it’s worth to you,’ ” she says. “If a cup of coffee is all you can afford, or if that’s all it’s worth, then just buy me a cup of coffee.” Sadly, some people have done just that, although usually she gets $10 or $20 for a one-hour session. She also makes money with part-time teaching gigs at Lehrhaus Judaica and a couple of local synagogues.

So how did Adar come down this path?

In 1986, after completing a master’s degree in the history of Christianity, at the Divinity School at the University of Chicago (and not long after getting divorced), she moved to the Bay Area and was helping a Jewish friend from Brooklyn find a synagogue. “I felt embarrassed how little I knew about Judaism,” she recalls. That lit a spark, and soon she was knocking on Rabbi Steven Chester’s door at Temple Sinai in Oakland, asking how one becomes a Jew.

She converted in the mid-’90s, worked as an outreach director for the Union for Reform Judaism, then decided to become a rabbi; in 2008, she was ordained at Hebrew Union College in Los Angeles. As a hearing-impaired person, she put her sign-language skills to use working at Congregation Beth Solomon of the Deaf in the San Fernando Valley.

After returning to the Bay Area, she drew up a business plan and started www.coffeeshoprabbi.com. Though she bought ads on Facebook, clients mainly find her via her classes or agencies such as Jewish Gateways and Building Jewish Bridges.

Sometimes she gets people hooked up with a congregation or a Jewish group. Other times the meetings are simply educational or therapeutic. “Often a synagogue is an intimidating place for people,” she says. “But meeting with me in a coffee shop is very low key, very low overhead and very accessible.”

As she tells me this, Adar takes a sip from the Magen David coffee mug she totes everywhere. This cup of joe is caffeinated, but if she’s already had a couple, she’ll switch to decaf. “There’s no point in being the jittery rabbi,” she says.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.