Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)
Civic Life

21 for ’21: Rabbi Paula Marcus on the art of staying hopeful — and connected

As senior rabbi at Temple Beth El and one of Santa Cruz County’s most high-profile religious leaders, Paula Marcus has had to learn a few lessons in adaptability and vulnerability amid the pandemic.

Before the annus horribilis of 2020, Paula Marcus was quite comfortable “out in the streets,” protesting and organizing on the social-justice front.

As the senior rabbi at Temple Beth El in Aptos, and one of Santa Cruz County’s most prominent spiritual/religious leaders, she felt a sense of duty to demonstrate and represent the values of her community.

But with an immuno-compromised husband at home, and because of a need to lead by example during shelter-in-place, Marcus has been reluctant to be as visible in public during the pandemic. And that reluctance has caused her some consternation.

Lookout's 21 for '21

EDITOR’S NOTE: We’re profiling 21 individuals who made a difference in pandemic-and-wildfire-ravaged Santa Cruz County in 2020 — and how they’re looking toward recovery in 2021. Have suggestions about others we should pick? Email us at news@lookoutlocal.com

“Personally, this has been very agitating for me,” she said. “I am someone who has gotten arrested for civil disobedience. I’m trained as a non-violent de-escalator.”

As if to test her resolve, 2020 has offered any number of opportunities for demonstrating, from the police-violence protests following the shooting deaths of George Floyd, to concerns of voter suppression leading up to the November elections.

“I was very concerned about it. It’s part of my style,” she said. “It’s very important for me to live up to the values connected to justice.”

Denied conventional street activism, Marcus turned to behind-the-scenes action, from leading a non-partisan postcard campaign to voters in swing states, to lobbying elected representatives on issues near and dear to her congregation. The Temple focused on issues such as climate change and education. It also convened a diversity, equity, and inclusion task force.

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Because of the pandemic’s restrictions, Marcus spent much of the year contemplating the meaning of a religious community in the absence of mass gatherings. It was a year of technological learning.

She helped maintain Santa Cruz County’s strong interfaith connections with online Zoom meetings with other religious communities, mainly through regular events with the Jewish-Christian-Muslim group Tent of Abraham.

Still, foremost in her mind was her TBE congregants, and how they were adapting to the surreal and uncomfortable restrictions of 2020. She has had to officiate at funerals through Zoom, and postpone long-planned bar and bat mitzvahs.

On the first night of Hanukkah, Marcus held a ceremony outside on the Temple grounds, socially distanced, with a big electric-powered menorah, for about 50 masked and socially distanced people.

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“At least, I could hear some children’s voices, socially distanced and in the dark,” she said. “I don’t know who it was. But at least there was that sense of being together in song and celebration.”

For the High Holy Days in September, Marcus led the Temple in an online celebration, another first.

Amid it all, she’s faced a personal challenge: Her husband is being treated for cancer.

“This year has taught us to take a step back. I believe that the sense of vulnerability that we all have been forced to experience has made us stronger,” she said. “When you’re vulnerable, that’s when you find your strength.”

Rabbi Paula Marcus of Temple Beth El.
(Kevin Painchaud/Lookout Santa Cruz)

As for the prospects for 2021, she remembers how she felt shortly after that Rosh Hashanah/Yom Kippur celebration. “We had this amazing tech guy, helping us with the online stuff and I said, ‘Well, I think we’re going to be doing this again next year.’ One of our staff people looked at me like she wanted to shoot me. But, you know, I think I might have been wrong. I think by next fall, we may be able to be together again (in person).

“I know people are tired of this. But my message to everybody is just hang in there. You have to find that place inside of yourself that wants to stay healthy and wants to live through this. And call me if you need me. Let me know what you need. If you’re feeling lonely or down, let us know. We’ll get somebody to stay connected with you.”