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BAJC rabbi takes an unconventional path to his new job

BRATTLEBORO—You know you’ve reached some kind of equilibrium when the president of the area Jewish community is also secretary of one of the two Rotary clubs in town.

But that’s Brattleboro. And that’s part of what the new rabbi of the Shir HeHarim (Song of the Mountains) Congregation in West Brattleboro, Moshe Thomas Heyn, 49, finds so appealing about his new, part-time job, since July.

And it’s certainly what Marty Cohn, the president of the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, says he fell in love with Brattleboro five years ago. Cohn and his family came to the area after many years of living in Needham, Mass. doing public relations for 35 years for everything from women’s liberation groups to medical associations.

Recently, the Cohns bought a house in Newfane after four years in town. He said he’s become so acclimated to life here that a few weeks ago, when he needed to go to a funeral back in Needham, he couldn’t find his ties.

And then, when he was there and among his old friend, people kept telling him, “You look different, relaxed.”

Meanwhile, “Rabbi Tom,” as some congregants call him, is, as he might have said 30 years ago in his ashram days, blown away by the high level of engagement in the community — in politics, music, art and social activism.

Heyn has come to lead his first congregation after considerable experience and education, preceded by the soul searching familiar to the seekers of the Baby Boom generation.

Before ordination and the five-year-degree he received in 1999 from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati — which also has campuses in New York, Los Angeles and Jerusalem (where he spent a year) —  Heyn briefly attended Drew University.

“That’s when I began my trip hitchhiking across the country,” Heyn recalled.  “I spent time at San Francisco State (most of the 1980s) and living in the city and eventually graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1993.”

But before all that, Heyn explains, he became a vegetarian in high school, which, he says, eventually exposed him to Hindu culture, to Gandhi, to yoga, to meditation and to the guidance available from leaders of ashrams, one of whom he studied with for some years in San Francisco.

“Many suburban Jews became disfranchised from mainstream religion,” Heyn said, adding that for him it was all about seeking spiritual connection, from people and places.

“A high percentage of people in ashrams were Jews,” he said. “There’s something about the Jewish personality that causes us to question authority, including God. Jews are known to be seekers. Spirituality is about experience, not faith or belief. In order to understand these experiences, the language of the East spoke to me.”

And then, Heyn says, it occurred to him that he wasn’t born a Hindu or a Buddhist and that “it would be wise for me to find my own spiritual roots,” which he did in part, he said, by studying kabbalah, or Jewish mysticism, currently popular among several celebrities.

“It helped me to understand Judaism in a new light,” he said. “I began to understand the meaning of the Bible.”

Heyn married in 1992 and has three sons, now 14, 12 and 10.  Sometime after the family moved to Cincinnati, the couple split up,

“We parted on very good terms,” Heyn said. “I was forever preoccupied with spirituality.” 

The couple essentially shared custody. Because of school, the children now live with their mother, but visited their father and his second wife, Alexandra, in Brattleboro for six weeks this summer.

Still a student of meanings — especially, “what it means to be fully human and to be fully present” — Heyn ponders about such things as concepts of God.

“We need to conceptualize but I want to get beyond that,” he said, and by way of explaining, he talked about the Zen tradition. “We get stuck on the finger pointing at the moon.”

A fan of his Blackberry, Heyn used it to find out when Jews first came to America: the mid-1600s. The subject came up during a conversation about his wife, a Brazilian Jew.

Heyn divides his work week as an interfaith chaplain for a hospice in Leominster, Mass. A musician who studied piano at the Peabody Institute in Baltimore as a boy, he now plays the keyboard and sings. He has played with and admires Eugene Uman, artistic director of the Vermont Jazz Center, and tries to incorporate music into services.

“We’ll have music during high holiday services,” Heyn said, noting this year’s celebrations and observances begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, at sundown Sept. 8 until nightfall Sept. 10, followed by Yom Kippur, the day of atonement, marked by fasting beginning at sundown Sept. 17 and ending at nightfall the next day [see sidebar].

Many Jews who are not otherwise observant tend to observe these holidays, Heyn said.

The congregation of about 100 families and 15 individual members may choose between weekly services Friday night or Saturday morning and about half of them attend regularly.  They pay annual dues of $1,360 for a family and $800 for an individual and they organize entertainments and social events much as any congregation does.

“But no one is turned away,” Cohn said.

On this day, a bowl of cold couscous salad, left over from the Israeli Movie and Food Festival the night before, could be seen on the kitchen counter. And, at about 1:30 p.m., after half a dozen women showed up to play mahjong, one could hear the bams and cracks, comical (but serious) mahjong terminology called out from the nearby sanctuary.

They come Wednesdays and Cohn says they call themselves the “mahjong mavens.”

Cohn reports that in this, the 40th anniversary of the congregation, there have been only three rabbis, plus the popular spiritual leader, Jim Levinson, who led the community for 10 years before leaving last year for other projects.

Home to the congregation is a 10-acre property with two houses and a barn (another barn was demolished) on Greenleaf Street, bought seven years ago for $150,000, according to Cohn, with money raised by dues and fundraisers. The annual budget, he said, is $100,000 for salaries and operation, again, raised by dues and fundraisers, such as the Israeli food and film event.

Cohn has elaborate praise for the new rabbi and his wife, chosen he said, from a pool “of a couple of dozen,” by telephone interviews shared by members of the congregation, and also after the final three candidates conducted services.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #66 (Wednesday, September 8, 2010).

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