Rabbi Eric Wiess, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, speaking at a BAHJC event in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy Weiss)
Rabbi Eric Wiess, CEO of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center, speaking at a BAHJC event in 2015. (Photo/Courtesy Weiss)

Bay Area Jewish Healing Center to shut down after 31 years

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After three decades of providing spiritual care to the sick, dying and bereaved, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center has been forced to fold due to insurmountable financial difficulties. The S.F.-based nonprofit will close its doors June 30.

It’s a loss the center’s leadership believes will be keenly felt across the region.

“It is truly devastating,” said Rabbi Eric Weiss, the center’s longtime CEO. “That’s the response we’ve gotten from past clients and participants in our program. The [BAJHC] was an agency that had the benefit of specialization, so our absence will create gaps in terms of spiritual care.”

Dr. Mary De May, the current board chair, echoed that sentiment, saying, “The expertise of the [BAJHC] rabbis is just not something that is easily found or replicated, especially this group of rabbis who have worked together for so long under Rabbi Weiss’s leadership.”

Weiss has been at the center for 27 years. His colleague, Rabbi Natan Fenner, has worked there for 22 years, making them, they believe, the longest serving rabbinic team in the Bay Area. Rabbi Jon Sommer, a certified chaplain, rounds out the center’s rabbinic team.

In that time, they partnered with hospitals, physicians, rabbis and Jewish institutions such as the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living (formerly the Jewish Home). They instituted bereavement groups, chaplaincy services, professional development programs and innovations such as the Kol Haneshama End-of-Life volunteer program (hospice care) and the Grief & Growing program (healing weekends for individuals and families).

Most importantly, the center’s three-rabbi staff, its employees and its volunteers provided one-on-one spiritual counseling to thousands of people at the most difficult moment of their lives.

It is truly devastating. That’s the response we’ve gotten from past clients and participants in our program.

What they and the board could not do was keep the center afloat financially. “No stone was left unturned” in an effort to stay in the black, De May said.

“The healing center has struggled financially for many years,” she noted. “There is nothing new here in that regard. The decision to close was one that we made over a year’s time, with an extraordinary amount of heart and soul and head involved. It has been absolutely excruciating.”

Founded in 1991, the center has been “lean its whole existence,” Weiss said, though it fought valiantly to remain self-sustaining and in recent years hired consultants to provide fiscal guidance.

“We did everything the consultants suggested,” he said. “We hired a development professional, we expanded our individual donor base. All these were suggestions that we took to heart and followed, and the economic reality still did not yield what would be a budget that could be maintained.”

With the end of the center now in sight, Weiss looked back on a gratifying career of service.

“We were able to create a vocabulary that did not previously exist around the language of spiritual care,” he said. “Nobody gets sick outside of a system. People get sick in community, and therefore we wanted to model programs that were cooperative.”

The first Northern California institution of its kind, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center has provided “Jewish spiritual care to those living with illness, those who care for them, and to the bereaved through direct service, education and training,” according to its website.

“It was established at a time when no other such agency existed,” Weiss said. “The center always functioned on this notion of direct service, but also on the level of what it means to frame one’s Jewish identity development along the path of spiritually caring for people.”

One approach he and his colleagues took in helping the dying and the bereaved was to address the spiritual yearning they have when they come to the universal experience of grief.

“A natural part of any spiritual experience is curiosity,” Weiss said. “It helps us take a leap of faith. If we want to be a whole human being, we don’t just pay attention to our past and what we want now. We pay attention to what we want our future to be. That leap is a spiritual endeavor.”

While mourning the loss of the BAJHC, De May hopes the community will find a way to compensate.

“I hope that some of the connections and collaborations we’ve made over the past decades will result in some people trying to step up, but we don’t now have a plan for how to do that,” said De May, the Hellman Master Clinician and the Hellman Family Distinguished Professor of Neurology at UCSF’s Weill Institute for Neurosciences. “We know this is going to create stress in the system.”

Weiss does not know what’s next for him, but he expects to continue making his rabbinate about service and spiritual care. Even though he worked with people at the saddest times of their lives, he said he never lost his enthusiasm for the mission of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center.

“I am endlessly fascinated by people’s spiritual experience in the world and what they do with it,” he said, “and I am endlessly honored by the spiritual intimacy to which I am invited in. I feel just as fresh as I ever did, and in some ways more confident. I have been moved and changed and nourished by the work.”

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.