Rabbi Ruth Adar
Rabbi Ruth Adar

‘Coffee Shop Rabbi’ taking over as HaMaqom director

Back in 1995, Ruth Adar was signing up for an “intro to Judaism” class at Lehrhaus Judaica in Berkeley on the recommendation of the rabbi that was helping her convert. On Monday, 26 years later, Adar —now Rabbi Ruth Adar — will be taking the reins as the new director of HaMaqom | The Place (the semi-new name of the beloved Jewish education center).

Of course, a lot happened between then and now.

Along the way, the Tennessee native was ordained in the Reform movement, started helping people as the itinerant “Coffee Shop Rabbi,” and became a popular and treasured teacher at HaMaqom, as well as a member of its board. Now, as executive director, she’ll be taking a step that combines elements of everything she’s done into one defining role.

“Ruth understands the path from student to teacher to rabbi, and knows how to inspire people to make that first positive connection and help guide them through their discovery,” HaMaqom board president Lisa Douglass Pearlmutter told J.

For Adar, it’s simple.

“I have a passion for this institution, and I want to see it succeed,” she said. “It felt beshert. It felt meant to be.”

Adar moved from Tennessee to the Bay Area before she decided to study to become a rabbi. She was ordained in 2008, worked for a while in Southern California and Las Vegas and came back to the Bay Area in 2010, but jobs were scarce. That’s when she set up as the Coffee Shop Rabbi, available to chat with people who had questions about anything from Jewish rituals to “how Jewish” they were based on their heritage. But after a while, she came to realize that a lot of what she was doing was helping people who felt some kind of a barrier to joining communal life.

“The answer to all those questions is in Jewish community,” she said she realized. “It’s a matter of making that accessible to people.”

Eventually she decided she could pursue her mission in another way.

“What I wanted to do was already happening — at HaMaqom,” she said.

She began as a teacher at HaMaqom in 2010, back when it still was named Lehrhaus Judaica. In fact, teaching “Introduction to the Jewish Experience,” the same class she took in 1995, is one of her passions. She said that the class, and HaMaqom as an organization, is a wonderful way for people who have felt uncomfortable or rejected in traditional synagogue environments to begin to draw closer to Judaism.

I have a passion for this institution, and I want to see it succeed.

“Let’s say a particular individual is saying, my Jewish heritage is very important to me, but I don’t know whether I’m going to be welcome at a synagogue because I fit some category,” she said. “I’m LGBTQ, I’m disabled, I have a Southern accent.”

HaMaqom is a safe place for someone like that to learn more about Judaism.

“My great interest is in the fringe of the Jewish community,” she said. “In the folks who would like to be part and don’t know how.”

Adar is replacing Rabbi Darren Kleinberg, who came to HaMaqom in May of 2020 after seven years as head of school at Kehillah Jewish High School in Palo Alto. HaMaqom was founded in Berkeley in 1974 as Lehrhaus Judaica by Fred Rosenbaum, who based it on the Freies Jüdisches Lehrhaus, which was founded in 1920 by Franz Rosenzweig in Frankfurt to reach Jews who were drifting away from Jewish learning (it was closed by the Nazis in 1938).

Rosenbaum, a noted historian who led Lehrhaus for more than four decades, said Adar was a perfect pick to head the organization.

“The school could not be in better hands, and I say that because she’s really one of the most admirable Jewish educators I’ve ever known,” said Rosenbaum, who now holds the title Lehrhaus Legacy Educator at HaMaqom.

He called Adar’s path to and within Judaism a “marvelous trajectory” in line with Rosenzweig’s original mission that learners of Judaism become teachers themselves. And he said her hiring is a testament to Adar’s own brand of passion and the secret to her popularity as a teacher.

“It’s the kind of warmth and understanding she has that is able to bring people in,” he said.

Adar has a master’s degree in religious studies from the University of Chicago Divinity School and was ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles in 2008. After that, she was a visiting assistant rabbi at Congregation Ner Tamid in Las Vegas for two years, and nowadays, she’s a member of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and Temple Sinai in Oakland.

She’s taking over at HaMaqom after a year in which previously in-person classes moved online and there was a boom in “attendance.” Classes were free for a period and have been drawing attendees from as far afield as Germany and New Zealand, Adar said. HaMaqom did go back to charging for many classes, but Pearlmutter said they’ve also given out more than $60,000 in scholarships to defray that.

Now Adar is coming in with a mission of keeping HaMaqom stable and in funds. That’s new for her in some ways, but other things won’t change.

“I’ll continue to be a HaMaqom learner as well as a HaMaqom teacher,” she said, adding that she’s currently taking a class on storytelling and is teaching classes on Psalms and the Book of Ruth.

And Adar, who once had her head shaved to help raise money for child cancer research, isn’t afraid to make changes.

“I am 66 years old and most people are winding down their careers,” she said. “But in rabbi years, I’m a lot younger. I was ordained at 54!”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.