Last Sunday was a day of dual celebration for Joel Baron. In the morning he received a master’s degree in Jewish Studies from Hebrew College Rabbinical School in Newton. That afternoon, Baron was one of 14 graduates being ordained as rabbis, in a moving ceremony at Chestnut Hill’s Temple Mishkan Tefila.
In conferring her blessings upon Baron, Rabbi Sharon Cohen Anisfeld invoked the memory of his paternal grandfather, himself a rabbi, and read lines from Stanley Kunitz’s poem “The Layers,” an eloquent meditation on maturity and self-knowledge. Baron, she said, teaches “by example what it means to risk growing for as long as we are granted life.”
“I was a mess emotionally,” Baron admitted later. “Now when somebody calls me ‘rabbi,’ I have a different and deeply internal response.”
He had good reason to get emotional. At 71, Baron became the oldest newly ordained rabbi in North America, according to an informal survey by Hebrew College. His ordination capped six years of study plus hundreds of hours counseling hospice patients, duties Baron undertook following a lengthy career in publishing. His resume includes stints as publisher of two leading medical journals, the North American edition of The Lancet and New England Journal of Medicine.
Baron has a genial, grandfatherly presence and droll sense of humor to complement his scholarly leanings and deeply held spiritual beliefs, qualities that have touched many who have studied and prayed alongside him over the past few years.
Baron said he hopes to be seen as a role model of sorts — not only for the local Jewish community but also for members of his generation, men in particular, seeking greater fulfillment in their retirement years. “I hope they see that turning 65 is not the end, it’s an opening we can walk through,” Baron said in an interview at his Newton home. “You can change course, realize dreams, if you’re lucky enough to have your health and a few bucks in the bank.”
Personally, he added, his ordination represents a “deeply profound” rite of passage that connects him to a rabbinic family tradition going back 300 years and multiple generations.
“Gratitude is probably the emotion I feel more than anything these days,” he said softly, crediting his wife, Phyllis, for supporting him as he set out on this quest.
That journey from businessman and family man to rabbi and spiritual counselor is remarkable not only for Baron’s age at ordination but for how he’s using his skills to serve others. In 2002, Baron had turned 60 and survived heart bypass surgery when he and Phyllis enrolled in a Me’ah program at Hebrew College. The two-year, 100-hour course of study covered Judaism from biblical to modern times and “lit a fire” in Baron, as he recalls.
“I’d forgotten how much I used to love this,” he said of his immersion in Jewish studies, including eight months spent in Israel mastering Hebrew. “It was studying as an adult that really made a difference to me.”
Growing up in Cleveland, Baron had been active in Jewish youth groups and had even planned on becoming a rabbi. His was a typical 1950s American Jewish household, he says, where assimilation took priority over being religiously observant. Because his parents were reluctant to support his rabbinic studies, he went off to college and majored in literature instead.
Hired by Little, Brown, and brought to Boston, Baron developed an expertise in medical and scientific publishing. After overseeing the Massachusetts Medical Society’s publishing business, he worked for a web-publishing company, then cofounded a Boston-based consulting firm.
“It was a good career. I worked for top-line academic and scientific publishers and learned a lot about medicine,” Baron recalled. “The more I gained access to Hebrew, though, the more I was in touch with what had made me want to be a rabbi when I was a teenager.”
At Newton’s Temple Shalom, where his family worshiped, he found a mentor in Rabbi Murray Rothman, who taught at Boston College for many years and who died in 1999.
“Murray helped me reset my thinking about what it means to be a Jew in 2oth century America,” said Baron, who served a three-year term as temple president.
At 65, Baron took the next step, enrolling in rabbinical school at Hebrew College, an international, pluralistic program unaffiliated with either Orthodox, Conservative, or Reform Judaism. Graduates typically go into one of a handful of vocations, according to Anisfeld, including teaching, congregational work, chaplaincy, and entrepreneurial programs and initiatives.
Baron began training to be a hospice chaplain at Hebrew SeniorLife, a provider of elder care and senior housing in the Greater Boston area. He has completed 1,200 of the 1,600 hours of work required to become certified as a hospital chaplain.
One-on-one counseling is often exhausting yet incredibly rewarding, Baron acknowledges. “A middle-aged patient with inoperable brain cancer and no spouse or children — helping somebody like that is off the charts,” he said.
Beginning next January, he’ll serve as program director for a new training course in hospice care designed for rabbis, cantors, and other Jewish professionals. In the meantime, he continues to see hospice patients in a variety of settings, including nursing homes and rehabilitation facilities.
Some of these patients are heavily medicated and can barely speak, he notes. Some have family members quarreling over medical decisions and other end-of-life issues. While many of the patients and families are Jewish, others are not. Whatever their religious affiliation, or lack thereof, Baron does what he can to provide some peace of mind in a patient’s final days.
“Even if they can’t hear my words, I believe they can sense my presence emotionally and spiritually,” he said. “I’ll hold their hand and hum an old Yiddish song, or read to them. It comforts them, hearing the language their parents and grandparents spoke.”
At times, too, Baron is drawn into deep discussions about life and death. Rather than impose his own views of the afterlife, he says, he’ll try to draw a patient out on what he or she believes, and often what they most fear about the unknown ahead.
“Something all chaplains try to do is help people conduct a life review,” he said. “ ‘What is unfinished business for you? Finished business you feel good about? Who haven’t you spoken to yet, and why?’ Sure they made mistakes in their lives. Well, join the world. We’ve all screwed up.”
To Anisfeld, what makes Baron such a powerful role model is his wide-angle perspective on life and the way he “lives with a strong sense of being in God’s presence,” as she puts it.
During one course he took at Harvard Divinity School, Baron was required to write a pair of papers. One was his own obituary, the other an essay on how it felt to write his own obit.
Asked how it felt to complete the exercise, Baron paused, his voice cloaked with emotion. “I felt humbled,” he finally said. “More at one with the patients I see, because it was the end of my life.”
When counseling a dying patient, Baron added, “I feel like I’m standing on holy ground. Like we’re in this together.” He stopped again and laughed, perhaps thinking how that might look in print. “Now they’ll lock me up,” he said.