Growing up in a Conservative Jewish home in Newton, Massachusetts, with her parents and brother, Lois Gail Esterman did all the right things. She attended Hebrew school through eighth grade, became a bat mitzvah, went to Hebrew high school and a Hebrew teacher’s college. She started her career as a teacher in 1979 at a Jewish community center school. But, something was missing. She never experienced a sense of Jewish spirituality. And, she never felt like a “Lois.” She felt more comfortable and true to herself being a “Grace.”
While she’d always been an organizer, manager, teacher, she’d never found quite the right niche. She taught, was a personal assistant and caregiver, and married for a short while. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in education for community health counseling because she always wanted to find out what made people “tick”.
At a time between chapters in her life, she stayed with a college friend in Virginia, trying to decide what was next. There, she attended a spiritual retreat where Richard Hartman popped into her life. Like Grace, he wasn’t really religious but indeed was very spiritual. And he was “the one.” One of Grace’s favorite spiritual gurus, Hugh Prather, says, “Just when I think I have learned the way to live, life changes.” Her life changed. She feels it was bashert (meant to be).
When Grace and Richard moved to Tucson in 1996, she began synagogue hopping, looking for a spiritual home, yet again felt unfulfilled. She settled at St. Francis in the Foothills UMC, which attracted many disenfranchised people. She says, “It became a spiritual home for many seekers.”
The congregation welcomed her Judaism. She celebrated Jewish and other holidays, along with those of other religions. She sang in Hebrew with Congregation Ner Tamid, a reform synagogue then housed at St. Francis. She sang with the choir, read scriptures and discussed how they relate to life, and coordinated a base community program and a “Merging Paths” class.
“It was satisfying, nurturing and wonderful,” she recalls. She formed a community of Jewish friends, “but I still lacked a Jewish home.” Several St. Francis members were ordained at a local interfaith seminary. Intrigued by this, Grace entered the Tucson Interfaith Theological Seminary in 2001. She studied the breadth of theology and religions under the tutelage of priests, rabbis, shamans, University of Arizona professors and others.
Upon ordination in 2003, she began leading non-denominational services. She continued teaching at St. Francis while working as a personal assistant, visiting nursing homes and providing spiritual companionship. Sue Alexander, the life enrichment director at Villa Maria Care Center, invited Grace to conduct a few pastoral programs at the senior living facility in 2006.
Grace went on to become and remains the senior living facility’s interfaith chaplain and pastoral care associate. “It took a while to be comfortable in a Catholic facility. Once I made peace with Jesus on the cross, I did ok,” she recalls, crediting her interfaith seminary training. She went on to complete a clinical pastoral education program and became accredited as a clinical chaplain and pastoral counselor.
Rabbi Helen Cohn of Congregation M’Kor Hayim was among the speakers during the clinical pastoral education program. “When I went to Shabbat service, there at M’Kor Hayim, I felt comfortable and I discovered Mussar, a Jewish ethical, educational and cultural practice, focusing on cultivating the spiritual traits of God within.” Grace calls that discovery serendipitous. The more she studied about awareness and growth, the more she began redefining traits in herself, and grew in her Judaism. Grace felt like she’d finally found her spiritual and Jewish home.
Joining M’Kor Hayim in 2014, she dove into social action and outreach. On May 27, 2016, for the second time, she celebrated becoming a bat mitzvah, this time by choice. “It felt so good. I’d found a place to belong,” she says. Now, she finds grace in discussing God every day at Villa Maria.
Grace says she was born singing and uses the vocal gifts, innate to her whole family. She occasionally stands in for the cantorial soloist to sing Shabbat prayers. She conducts “Sing for Your Soul” sing-alongs and twice-weekly all-denomination services at the care center. She finds wonder in celebrating all religions on all occasions, from blessing pets on the Feast of St. Francis, to blessing the hands of colleagues, to celebrating the Passover seder. She has stood shoulder to shoulder with bishops and priests co-leading a memorial mass or singing a hymn. She helped a nun lead a communion service and has offered and taken communion herself. “As an interfaith minister it doesn’t have to be about what I believe, it’s about what others believe,” she says. “It’s about being able to give and it is all about love.
“I always wanted to help people grow but I first had to learn about myself. I realized I didn’t want to be a therapist but wanted to be with people in a spiritual, heartfelt way.” Ministry allows her to do that without having to hang out a shingle. It’s bashert.