Rabbi Eric Weiss: Healing the Sick

July 17, 2019
Rabbi Eric Weiss; Photo courtesy of Rabbi Eric Weiss

Since 1991, the nonprofit Bay Area Jewish Healing Center has been providing spiritual care to a diverse Jewish community. Rabbi Eric Weiss, who in a former professional life was a paralegal, is the center’s president and CEO. 

The center supports people struggling with some of life’s most difficult challenges, including illness, grief and death, by providing bereavement support groups, mental illness outreach, officiating at Jewish funerals and memorial services, inmate support, and providing Shabbat services and High Holy Days programs at senior residential facilities. The Journal spoke with Weiss about how the center in San Francisco fills a vital need in the community.

Jewish Journal: What drew you to the center?

Eric Weiss: I am endlessly fascinated by people’s spiritual experience of the world and what they do with it. I really believe that there are certain universal human experiences. Everyone comes to their last breath. Everyone gets sick. And everyone comes to fold grief into their lives. I think these naturally stimulate spiritual reflection and they yearn for a communal response. For me, being able to be with people in their human experience and to be part of their spiritual focus creates intrinsic nourishment. 

JJ: Who seeks out your services?

EW: We serve people who are sick in some form — living with mental, chronic or terminal illness. We work with folks in grief. Or someone who may be nearing the end of life, even though they’re not terminally ill. It’s important that we pay attention to people at the end of life, even if there’s no disease process. We typically think of dying as only being terminally ill, but when someone is 95 and otherwise healthy, they don’t know if they’re going to wake up the next day. People start thinking about some bigger issues, such as what might be beyond this life, their legacy, their place in this world and their relationships. We provide that support and spiritual care that’s needed at that time. We visit people wherever we’re needed, whether it’s a jail, a psychiatric facility, a hospital or someone’s home. 

JJ: Are the center’s services free?

EW: Our business model is a philanthropic model and there is no fee for service. People donate what they want and we also write grants and receive other donations. We do charge a fee for consulting, our formal programs or workshops, but nobody is turned away for lack of funds. 

JJ: Do you think there’s an inherent connection between Judaism and helping others?

EW: I think what’s unique is how Judaism talks about caring. Jewish life shows a way in which you have a relationship with something transcendent — beyond who you are as an individual, whether it’s religious or secular, God or not. If you’re mitzvah-oriented, caring for the sick is the most basic form of a mitzvah. There are time-bound mitzvahs, like lighting Hanukkah candles or Shabbat candles, but there are others that aren’t time-bound. There is no end to them. Ever. The wisdom of a rabbi saying that visiting the sick is not time-bound can feel overwhelming, but I think that the real wisdom is that it’s actually a way to be empathetic. It’s a way to stretch the empathy of a well person to understand the desire to be better. 

JJ: You deal with issues surrounding life and death. Is the gravity of that always with you? 

EW: It is. It sticks with me and it should. It’s part of the grandness of humanity. We grow in response to the ways we’re touched by others. Sometimes it’s painful, but it’s extraordinarily rewarding. I think of it as an honor to be let in — and I’m willing and wanting to be touched by those experiences. That’s why we’re all in this world together. I’ve grown immeasurably by the relationship of caring. 

JJ: What is your Jewish background? 

EW: I grew up in Los Angeles in a large mainstream Jewish family with lots of aunts, uncles and cousins. My parents were elementary school teachers and my father taught religious school. Synagogue life was a given. Being part of an extended Jewish family was a wonderful thing. 

JJ: When did you develop an interest in learning more about Judaism?

EW: When I was in college at UC Santa Cruz, I was a biology and Judaic studies major. I was fascinated by science. But I was also interested in what was spiritual, what was beyond a proton or an electron and what went beyond any one person. I have always felt attached to the spiritual narrative of life. 

JJ: How did you wind up becoming a paralegal? 

EW: I applied to and was accepted at seminary, but I was right out of college and didn’t feel I had enough life experience. I moved to San Francisco and took a job as a paralegal and I loved it. At around the same time, I also became part of the first cadre of LGBT hospice volunteers in San Francisco. When I did that, I started to gravitate to a more spiritual drive. I decided to reapply to seminary, this time as openly gay, and I got in again.

JJ: Do you think Judaism is accepting of all types of diversity?

EW: If we believe and assert that everyone is created in God’s image, then it’s easy to say that our diversity is a testament to God’s unfathomable creativity. We are diverse in our levels of observance, sexual orientation, gender, identity, race and class. We are better served by diversity if we live by divine intent. And the Jewish world is served by its diversity of rabbis and cantors and educators. We Jews are all over the place and we are every type of human being.

Allison Futterman is a writer living in North Carolina.

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