A marriage contract — the Jewish ketubah — hangs on a wall in the home of Rabbi Patrice Heller and her husband, Michael Ecker, as a reminder of their commitment 32 years ago.

The couple met on an elevator at the Academy House in Philadelphia, where they both lived three decades ago. Patrice mistakenly tried to get off on Michael's floor, thinking it was the lobby. He set her straight.

That chance meeting led to a conversation, a first date, and eventually a life together, now shared in a home filled with warmth and personality.

When the couple outgrew their previous home — a Center City trinity, full of charm and history but also tiny spaces — they began searching for a more practical and livable space. By then, they had a baby daughter and were expecting another child.

During Passover, which starts March 30, the family’s focus will turn to the dining room and kitchen, where Seder plates are out on the counter.
MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF
During Passover, which starts March 30, the family’s focus will turn to the dining room and kitchen, where Seder plates are out on the counter.

The family found a house on a cul-de-sac in Ambler, Montgomery County, that had a welcoming aura, a deep backyard, and a certain familiarity for Patrice, who grew up in a similar house in St. Louis.

It turned out to be a perfect fit for the family, whose two daughters and a son — now young adults — come and go, knowing the home is their anchor.

From 1981 to 1986, Patrice served as the first female rabbi at Rodeph Shalom Synagogue,  founded in 1795, one of Philadelphia's most historic synagogues.

While she still officiates at life events, including baby namings, weddings and funerals, the rabbi, who received a doctorate from Bryn Mawr College, practices individual and relational therapy with an emphasis on women's issues.

Michael, who holds a law degree and an MBA, is a partner in a firm that specializes in business law. He loves what he simply calls "problem solving."

Patrice Heller, who was the first female rabbi to serve Rodelph Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia, now works as a therapist out of her home.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Patrice Heller, who was the first female rabbi to serve Rodelph Shalom Synagogue in Philadelphia, now works as a therapist out of her home.

The home lends itself to the couple's taste in what is rare to achieve: French-style furnishing, but not of the fussy sort. They also manage to mix elegance and comfort.

Art and accessories that appear in every room in some form — from Cubist paintings to exquisite china to casual graphic designs — blend and harmonize with spectacular Oriental-style rugs.

"I love blues," Patrice said, "and Michael loves reds."

But into the mix, especially in the floral rugs, is a blend of jewel tones including rose, muted pinks, celadon, beige, and even black. The effect is at once warm and striking.

A decorative wrought-iron gate leads into the living room of Rabbi Patrice Heller and Michael Ecker.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
A decorative wrought-iron gate leads into the living room of Rabbi Patrice Heller and Michael Ecker.

Almost symbolically, a handsome indoor wrought-iron gate both introduces the home and welcomes guests into the expansive living room —  a comfortable space far from the "don't touch me" style. It features easy-living sofas and a glorious older Yamaha piano with a hand-made needlepoint bench cover.

A nearby family room is clearly the hang-out place for kickback comfort.

And then there are the fish, which all started with a gift from a friend discarding a tank.

Michael said he was transformed into a serious and avid collector of fish, now displayed  inside and outside his home.

"It's like many other things in life," he said. "You start a little hobby, and suddenly it's not so little anymore."

Outdoors is a dramatic koi pond, complete with a waterfall. The koi hibernate in a cave during the winter and come out when the weather is moderate to warm. (Smart fish!) They even have their own art: a beautiful statuary that lights up at night.

Michael Ecker’s interest in fish extends into the back yard, where he had a koi pond built.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Michael Ecker’s interest in fish extends into the back yard, where he had a koi pond built.

As Passover, which begins at sundown March 30, approaches, the focus will turn to the kitchen and the dining room, with its graceful French country-style chairs upholstered in soft blue surrounding a handsome table.

"We love the holiday," said Patrice, who sometimes leads the family through a Seder guide known as the Haggadah. The meal also is a shared exploration of the holiday's true meaning: freedom from Egyptian domination. Discussions among family and friends at the Heller-Ecker Seder often involve what freedom really is, how family members have evolved, and how they would like to grow and move forward.

How we live our lives is familiar territory for this rabbi/therapist. A home office lined with books offers a kind of sanctuary for her and some of her clients.

"It was definitely one of the features of the house that really attracted me," she said.

The couple's oldest daughter, Isabelle, has a "sanctuary" of her own. In the basement, she works out of a full studio devoted to her passion: handmade jewelry. Her pieces have been described in both British Vogue and Vanity Fair.

She sums up the family sentiment on why their home means so much: "I'm so lucky to have work I love, in a home I love."

Isabelle Ecker makes jewelry in a studio in her parents’ basement. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair and British Vogue.
MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff
Isabelle Ecker makes jewelry in a studio in her parents’ basement. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair and British Vogue.