The Bay Area Jewish Healing Center (BAJHC) is dedicated to providing Jewish spiritual care to those living with illness, to those caring for the ill, and to the bereaved through direct service, education and training, and information and referral. Jewish Healing combines ancient tradition with modern tools to provide spiritual support for individuals and families as they struggle with life’s greatest challenges.

At the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living, the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center was an integral part of launching our award-winning Kol Haneshama program, which provides special companionship and spiritual support to residents in the last years of their lives. Since 2020, after the retirement of Rabbi Sheldon Marder, SFCJL has been partnering with BAJHC to provide spiritual leadership and chaplaincy to our residents, families, and staff alike, regardless of their affiliation.

The longest-serving rabbinical team in the San Francisco Bay Area, the Bay Area Jewish Healing rabbis are specially trained, beyond their graduate and seminary years, in a combination of Jewish education, clinical chaplaincy, and spiritual direction. Through their work, the rabbis of the Bay Area Jewish Healing Center strive to transform our community’s relationship to illness, death, and loss and expand everyone’s capacity to care and be cared for.

In this series, we will introduce each of the three Bay Area Jewish Healing rabbis, who have come to be treasured members of our SFCJL family.

Rabbi Jon Sommer in our synagogue, Congregation L’Dor V’Dor

Rabbi Jon Sommer

Rabbi Jon Sommer served in the United States Air Force and began his professional training and work through the Air Force Academy, and later at the Pentagon, Bolling Air Force Base, and Air Force Space Command. He received the distinguished Air Force Achievement Medal. He is a graduate of both Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion and the University of California. Rabbi Sommer was ordained in 1998, and currently serves on the board of a Reform Movement think-tank that addresses critical and timely issues facing modern Jewish thought and practice.

Because of its demands, needs, and rewards, Rabbi Sommer understands Chaplaincy as the part of the Rabbinical profession which uniquely exemplifies Baruch Spinoza’s observation that “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” He is deeply committed to Chaplaincy as an institution thorough which all members of both the Jewish and wider community can be served.

Rabbi Sommer reflects:

One of the great honors of the rabbinical profession, and our work at the San Francisco Campus for Jewish Living (SFCJL), is that the many remarkable individuals who call SFCJL home allow us, as rabbis, into their lives at important and critical moments, whether it is joys they wish to share, a loss, a diagnosis, or times of transition. As pastoral care providers we are not therapists, rather we seek the spiritual essence which informs the moment and the person. A colleague of mine, who was raised in Louisiana, once described an aspect of his work as analogous to “porch sitting.” In the South, on warm nights, neighbors would gather on their porches, sitting side by side, looking out onto the street, or metaphorically the world, in the same direction and listening intently to one another. To be heard, seen, and acknowledged on different levels and as an equal (and not in hierarchal relationship), without one’s concerns being dismissed or even necessarily assuaged, can be a true gift. 

But there is also joy in the community work and programs we facilitate. One of the activities I truly enjoy is entitled “The Contribution of Jewish Musicians to the American Songbook.” For an hour or so, on one of the dementia-oriented units, we gather folks in the activity room. I introduce each song, its composer, and history and then play the song itself using iTunes and a speaker. Pieces range from early Irving Berlin compositions to Neil Diamond classics, from “Putting on the Ritz” to “Love Potion Number 9.” Perhaps one of the most poignant moments for me, however, is when I play Herb Alpert’s “This Guy’s in Love with You.” At that moment, one of the gentlemen on the unit gets up at the invitation of one of the nurses, and with matchless grace, they dance together to this beautifully sentimental tune, at the end of which everyone applauds, he bows, and we are all just taken with the tenderness of the moment. It is truly an hour of magic. Folks who may not be particularly responsive, suddenly transform, and joyfully behave, sing, dance, or move in ways they normally may not. 

To paraphrase Burt Bacharach’s famous song “Alfie”: “What’s it all about? Is it just for the moment we live… or are we meant to be kind? Without true love we just exist. When you walk, let your heart lead the way, and you’ll find love any day.” ― and we do. Whether it is in one-on-one conversation, in groups, or just walking the halls, we as rabbis not only emphasize the Jewish values of individual care, acts of loving kindness, as well as community, but, it can be truly said, that we also are rewarded each day by the depth and breadth of relationship we encounter in our service to the diversity of residents. 

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