Karen Erlichman: Rabbi in Everything But Title

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It took a while, and wasn’t in the form she expected, but Karen Erlichman eventually achieved her dream. When she was nine years old, growing up in Philadelphia in an assimilated Jewish family, Erlichman wanted to be a rabbi.  But at that time – 1971 – there were no female rabbis. Today, Erlichman considers herself to be a rabbi in nearly every way but the title.

Erlichman offers psychotherapy, spiritual direction, supervision, professional development and mentoring from her private practice, Practistry, on Connecticut Street.  Working with individuals and groups, she helps connect her clients – spiritual directors, therapists, social workers, and students – to their sense of calling, purpose, and identity.

Erlichman is on the faculty of the Morei Derekh Jewish spiritual direction training program, a two-and-a-half year, distance and residency-based course that helps individuals cultivate their inner qualities, knowledge, and skills to enable them to offer effective spiritual guidance to others. She’s a professor of Jewish Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Foundation, which offers graduate-level educational opportunities to those providing spiritual leadership within and outside the Jewish community.

She’s worked at a number of Bay Area educational institutions, including Sofia University – formerly the Institute for Transpersonal Psychology – Starr King School for the Ministry, the University of California, San Francisco’s Department of OB/GYN and Reproductive Sciences, and San Francisco State University’s Department of Social Work.

Erlichman received her master’s in social work from Bryn Mawr College. “I ended up in the path of social work because I felt called to a path of service, and social work in some ways is the secular version of being a rabbi, or minister, or pastor,” she said in an interview with the View. “It was very much still in harmony with my core values and sense of calling.”

She moved to California in 1989 to work as a perinatal social worker for UCSF, where she stayed for eight years. A large part of her practice these days focuses on perinatal issues, such as infertility, pregnancy loss, unplanned pregnancies, family planning, as well as other subjects that fall under the umbrella of women’s health.

While Erlichman spent the first part of her career as a social worker, spirituality animated her pursuits.  In the late-1990s she was drawn into Jewish meditation at Chochmat Halev in Berkeley, engaging in mindfulness, moving meditation, visualization, chanting, and other practices. “After two years of training in Jewish meditation, the call to be a rabbi came back,” she said. “That was maybe 1998, but then it turned out that no rabbinic programs would take me because my partner is not Jewish.”

“I really love what I do now so much,” she added. “I feel like being a spiritual director, and teaching spiritual direction, and being a therapist, and doing the mentoring I do, is what I’ve always wanted to do. It’s not about the title of rabbi. If I had gone the traditional route of rabbi, I would never be doing the cool stuff I’m doing now.”

Erlichman is currently training in Sensorimotor Psychotherapy, a mindfulness-based model of looking at how the body processes trauma.  “I worked for so many years with people who had trauma: pregnancy, or loss, or whatever kind of trauma,” she said. “To have that whole person approach, I started with the mind and went to the spirit. To leave out the body would be incomplete. It’s been really wonderful to be finally including that piece and to have more tools and language and resources so that the wisdom of the body can be included for people.”

Erlichman characterizes her work as cultivating listening to the voice of deepest truth that’s inside each of us. “All the things that people are told, myself included, about who we’re supposed to be or how we’re supposed to live that may come from society or our families or whatever, it may or may not be in harmony with who we are actually called to be in a deeper, larger way,” she said. “I remind people of that voice and help them to figure out how to let go of the messages they received.”

Dignity and authenticity are core values of social work, something Erlichman wants to help people with: to live a life of integrity.  It’s no easy task – therapy is hard work – but it can also be fun. “There’s a lot of joy and creativity, and I have so much respect for the people I work with,” she said.

Something else that brings her joy is working on the Hill. “I used to have an office in the Inner Sunset for 16 years where it was foggy all the time, so I have to say I do love the climate of Potrero Hill,” she said.

Having Mission Bay nearby allows her to maintain her connection to UCSF; she serves on the university’s special advisory group for the spiritual services care department. The group includes UCSF employees as well as outside professionals who are familiar with spiritual care in a healthcare setting and clinical pastoral education for chaplains. They meet three to four times a year, serving as consultants and advisers to the department.  “Every clinical pastoral education resident chaplain has a mid-year and year-end evaluation to support their growth and learning, and I have participated in a number of these evaluation meetings. We also support the department’s ongoing professional activities whenever possible,” Erlichman said.

It was an unexpected journey to get to where she is now, but Erlichman said she wouldn’t have it any other way.