PAUL SHLEFFAR was going through a tough time more than a decade ago. He’d just lost his devoutly Jewish
grandparents when a counselor from their hospice called and said, “There’s something you might want to try.”
The counselor’s suggestion was Jewish meditation. Though Shleffar, who’d worked as a firefighter in
San Mateo and Modesto for 20 years, was not a particularly observant Jew, he decided to give it a try. The
teachings resonated with him so much that he signed up for a three-year course to become an instructor,
a decision that changed his life.
During the course, a mentor asked if he’d consider being a rabbi. “It was like this huge aha moment,” says
Shleffar. “I just remember not being able to sleep. I thought, ‘finally, this is what I’m supposed to be doing.’ ”
Though still working as a firefighter full time, Shleffar enrolled in rabbinical school in Los Angeles,
scheduling his classes so he could take them all on Sunday, Monday and Tuesday. He used vacation time
and traded shifts with other firefighters to make it work. When he finally graduated in 2006, he became a
rabbi-for-hire, conducting weddings and funerals and doing counseling.
It was only when a friend asked Shleffar to substitute for him at the Redwood City jail that he really
found his place. That gig led to a full-time job at the California Department of Corrections and finally, to
the position of rabbi/Jewish chaplain at San Quentin, where the Lagunitas resident now teaches, leads
religious services and counsels inmates, many of them on death row.
In working with these prisoners, Shleffar says, “I’m continually amazed by the depth and breadth of
their humanity.” He also sees transformations not unlike his own. “Before, I felt like I was kind of sleep-
walking through life,” he says. “But through this process, I’ve had deep realizations about the nature of
God and life. I feel like I’ve woken up.”
being able to
sleep. I thought,
‘Finally, this is