Joel Baehr (1941-2023)
Joel Donovan Baehr, ordained Unitarian Universalist minister, psychotherapist, and life-
long spiritual adventurer, died on September 22, 2023. Joel died as he lived, on his own terms and cherished by many.
Joel was born on February 16, 1941 in Chicago, IL to Anna Ruth Ediger Baehr and Karl Herbert Baehr. Both raised in Mennonite families, Anna Ruth (who became a school teacher and a published poet) and Karl (who became an ordained Congregationalist minister, activist and sculptor) met at Mennonite-affiliated Bethel College in North Newton, Kansas. The family – Anna Ruth, Karl, Joel and older sister Beth – eventually settled in Garden City, a Long Island suburb of New York City. Joel’s childhood home was filled with ideas, religion, literature, music
Joel was an active, inquisitive child who loved and played sports and music. Joel rooted for the New York Giants and Willie Mays at the Polo Grounds, and played varsity soccer for Garden City High School. He sang in the high school choir and learned to play several instruments. The Dixieland jazz combo he joined with other GCHS students, ‘The Saints’, in which he played the upright bass, landed teenaged Joel on the Ted Mack Amateur Hour, where he served as spokesman for the band (watch the episode HERE).
Joel’s four years at Haverford College, majoring in philosophy, were tremendously formative. At Haverford, Joel forged friendships that lasted a lifetime. The introduction to existentialist thought he received at Haverford was, for Joel, intellectual jet fuel. And while singing in the joint Haverford-Bryn Mawr College Choir, Joel met the beautiful and smart music major Ann Witman.
Joel and Ann married in 1962 while Joel was preparing for the ministry at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. Their daughter Rebecca Hunter Baehr was born in 1964; Amy Ruth Baehr followed in 1966. The family moved to upstate New York, where Joel served for three years as Minister at the First Unitarian Church in Rochester, then to Connecticut, where he served as Minister for the Unitarian Universalist Congregation in Stamford. While in Stamford, Joel attended the Westchester Institute for Training in Psychoanalysis and eventually stepped down from the ministry – although he remained active in the Unitarian Universalist Association, serving on its board – to devote his time to a psychotherapy practice.
Joel had spiritual experiences as a child and was a spiritual seeker throughout his life. He was imprinted early on by the Mennonite religious heritage of his parents and the liberal Christian theology of the Garden City Congregationalist Church his family attended. His study of existentialist philosophy at Haverford had a profound influence on him, as did exposure to the lively religious intellectual culture at Union Theological Seminary and the theological eclecticism of Unitarian Universalism. Looking for more, and guided by his syncretist tendency to take insight wherever he could find it, Joel studied and practiced with teachers in diverse traditions including Quaker, Sufi, Roman Catholic, and Siddha Yoga; he also made forays into the human potential movement, including EST (Erhard Seminar Training) and the Enneagram.
Joel fell in love with Tibetan Buddhism in 1992 while on retreat at Gampo Abbey and thereafter became a student of Lama Surya Das, Lama John Makransky, Chokyi Nyima, Lama Willa Baker, and others. At the request of Surya Das, Joel developed and taught an online course, “Buddhism and Everyday Life,” which enrolled hundreds of students over the years. He was meditation teacher and Mitra in the Natural Dharma Fellowship Margha Program. He was a meditation teacher and Board member of Foundation for Active Compassion. And he was a teacher and practice leader in a number of independent sanghas – including First Parish, Cambridge, MA; Rising Light Sangha, Saranac Lake, NY; Snow Lotus Sangha in Watertown, NY; the Awakening Heart Practice Community; and a weekly online group.
For Joel, spiritual life was central to the psychotherapeutic relationship. Calling his approach ‘pragmatic spirituality,’ Joel sought to draw on religious and spiritual traditions best suited to address the hopes and suffering of the individual people who came to him for counsel. Describing his approach in an article in the Journal of Spirituality in Mental Health (2009), Joel wrote: “Through disciplined practice, client and therapist are yoked together in love that includes and transcends both client and therapist and connects them with spiritual teachers throughout the ages, with all other beings, and with the deep mystery of life. The result of the work is beyond repairing the self; it is awakening to love, compassion, joy, and peace—and being friendly to all.”
While Joel touched the lives of many through his psychotherapeutic practice and Buddhist teaching, he wrote that “In many ways my children are my most important gift to the world.” A parent at 22, Joel took great pleasure in parenting, and he was a natural at it. He built his daughters a treehouse, made their school lunches, sang rounds with them in the car, volunteered as ‘class parent,’ and attended their innumerable concerts, plays and sporting events. He modeled living with gusto, enjoying wine, cooking grand meals for the family and hosting grand parties. He invited his daughters into the life of the mind with endless conversations about the most important things. Becky’s and Amy’s teenage friends found him so compelling that they’d stay to talk with him about philosophy and religion even if Amy and Becky were not around.
Joel and Ann enjoyed rich and enduring friendships with many people. Wherever they lived, they befriended their neighbors and their home was beautiful, warm and welcoming – overflowing with good food and wine. Joel loved time spent with his extended family – hiking in
the White Mountains in New Hampshire, taking anniversary trips with his sister and brother-in-
law and two other beloved family couples all married in 1962. He cherished and remained close to his sister Beth throughout his life.
Joel loved music – singing with the men’s acapella group ‘The Off-Sounders’ in Connecticut and playing the recorder many summers in the family ensemble ‘Ill Windes and Foul Aires.’ He continued to follow sports, eventually shifting his allegiance to the Boston Red Sox. Joel loved a succession of pets, sometimes referring to them as his teachers. He loved motorcycles and rode one for much of his adulthood – dropping Becky off at preschool on it; and taking trips with Ann on it, the two of them arriving at their destination fully clad in black leather. Joel loved liberal causes – building houses with the Quakers in Mississippi as a teenager; leading a group to Washington for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in 1963; helping women travel to Canada to obtain abortions before it was legal in New York State; marching against the Iraq war in New York City 2003. Joel loved good food (especially steak) and wine (especially red). And he loved good conversation about religion and philosophy and what mattered most to people. Most of all, Joel loved people. Joel was blessed with four grandchildren to whom he was simply ‘Grandpop.’ He effortlessly bridged the generation gap with inside jokes, making sure to leave out the middle generation! He built individual and special relationships with each grandchild and was endlessly kind, loving and generous.
Despite the real toll Parkinson’s took on Joel’s life during his last 10 years, he characteristically counted it a blessing. When asked at a recent Thanksgiving dinner what he is grateful for, Joel replied “I am grateful for Parkinson’s.” As he put it, “Parkinson’s Disease has led me into a world of being cared for…A strong case can be made that suffering is a great ally to spiritual growth.”
Ann’s sudden death in 2021 after nearly 59 years of marriage ushered in changes for Joel. He required care from professional caregivers – to whom the family is grateful – and from his daughters. Despite his declining health in his last two years, Joel insisted on living as fully as he could. He continued to enjoy good food and wine, great music, good conversation. Family and sangha became even more important. And, to his amazement, Joel experienced a new love. Joel lived, and also died, on his own terms. During his last days, friends and family visited with Joel, read him poetry, played him music, called and FaceTimed and Zoomed to be with him. His home was awash in affection and gratitude. Joel received everyone with grace and love, proclaiming himself “buoyant” about this final page of his life and imparting to everyone who knew him one final lesson about how to live, and die, with an open heart. He had completed his journey. Hours before he died, Joel received blessings from Lama Willa Baker and a small circle at his bedside, with his extended sangha attending virtually.
Joel will be dearly missed by his family: daughters Becky Baehr and Amy Baehr; sister Beth Baehr Bullard and brother-in-law Truman Bullard; grandchildren Sarah Baehr Schrading, Lilah Baehr Schrading, Karl Basile-Baehr and Vera Basile-Baehr; and sons-in-law Roger Schrading and Joe Basile. In our grief, we are comforted by Joel’s belief that “Each moment of sudden grief is also a celebration of remembered delight.” We delight in his memory now. Indeed, his spirit lives on in the hearts, minds and beings of his loved ones and the many other people whose lives he touched.
Let the family know you care by sharing this tribute.