Spirituality, leadership, and social justice

This year’s Tony Hill Award honoree, Paula Marcus, spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Aptos, applies the Jewish principal of Tikkun Olam, the responsibility to repair the world, in her work and life.

Photo by Shmuel Thaler

For the past three decades, Paula Marcus has been a leader, an organizer, a social justice and interfaith champion.

She was an early and passionate advocate for affordable housing, and launched the Twice Blessed movement, reaching out to Jewish LGBTQ community membersShe was a key organizer of a march dedicated to the memory of students killed at Parkland. This spring, she co-hosted a march protesting the Trump administration's migrant family separation policy.

Now, Marcus’s labors, outreach, community bridge-building and vision are getting the recognition they deserve. Marcus is the 11th recipient of the annual Tony Hill Award, a prestigious honor that is given to bridge-builders and community organizers who embody the spirit of the late social activist Tony Hill.

Marcus, senior rabbi of Temple Beth El in Aptos since 2016, will receive the award on Monday, February 11, during the 35thannual Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial Convocation, celebrating the life and dream of Martin Luther King, Jr. The convocation, featuring Melissa Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University, starts at 7 p.m. at the Santa Cruz Civic Auditorium in downtown Santa Cruz.

Marcus’s many community partners include Protestant, Catholic, Muslim, Buddhist and Jewish leaders who work with her through an interfaith collaboration called the Tent of Abraham.

“Paula Marcus is very much at the center of what is good in our Santa Cruz community,’’ wrote Deacon Patrick Conway of the Resurrection Catholic Community in Aptos in a letter recommending Marcus for the award. “She is gifted in drawing from ancient Jewish tradition what is truly dynamic and eternal, and unleashing its power to inspire, motivate, and transform us all.”

Marcus, who has worked with Tony Hill, said she was pleasantly shocked when Melanie Stern, Tony Hill's widow, who serves on the Tony Hill Award selection committee, called her with the news. “What made it even more inspiring and mind boggling was the fact that I was just talking about Tony Hill with someone who had never met him,’' Marcus said.  “I think of Tony as someone who was never afraid to really tell the truth. He always did this in gracious, strong ways.”

Stern has known Marcus for years, and vividly recalls a meeting that Tony Hill and Paula Marcus attended in the '90s. "What I've always respected about her is her calm presence and her real commitment, her connection between her spiritual work and her activism," Stern said. "They were always intertwined. She has done this work not only as a rabbi but as a citizen of our community." 

Social justice has been a driving force since her childhood. As a girl, Marcus’s role model was her community rabbi, Maurice Davis, in New York. “He taught about social justice all the time,’’ she said. Marcus mentioned the Jewish Reform movement’s strong emphasis on “doing the work of the divine on earth. That has been a very key message in reform Judaism. When we read (The Book of Isaiah in the Torah), it talks about clothing the naked, freeing the captive, sheltering the homeless. That is a core message of biblical calling, a prophetic message. It is up to us to figure out how we are going to live into that. How are we going to put that into action?”

Marcus’s many admirers point out the various ways in which she applies the Jewish principle of Tikkun Olam, the responsibility to repair the world, by addressing economic and social problems.

Indeed, this spiritual responsibility is part of her daily practice as an advocate and activist. Marcus was a founding member of Out in Our Faith(OIOF), a collective of local faith-based congregations.  OIOF has been a local and national leader in supporting religious groups that welcome LGBTQ members. She was also a leader in the creation of Erik Schapiro Knolls, which provides livable housing for farm workers.

“She takes action, and then encourages and inspires Temple Beth El members to take action as well,” wrote Sharon Papo, executive director of the Santa Cruz County Diversity Center, in her letter advocating for Marcus to receive the Tony Hill Award. “She has lived and advocated for the values that Tony Hill expressed during his lifetime.”

The gift comes with a $500 cash prize, which Marcus plans to donate to Communities Organized for Relational POWER in ACTION(COPA) an organization that works to assist families and build community connections.