Rabbi Moshe Thomas Heyn breathes deeply when he enters the sanctuary of Temple Israel of Greater Miami. He closes his eyes for a moment. The morning sun through the stained glass casts slivers of colored light across his face.
“I feel like I’m at home in this sanctuary,” he said. “When you read in the psalms ‘I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever,’ this is what they mean.”
Already wielding his own set of keys to the landmark building on Northeast 19th Street, Rabbi Tom is ready to take over as the new rabbi. He joins the synagogue on its 100th year in the city, bringing a fresh sense of spirituality to the diverse congregation. His official introduction to the community will be next week, when he leads his first Friday night Shabbat service.
Heyn did not take the traditional path to rabbinical study; he came by way of a Jewish music band and 10 years in a Hindu ashram. He chooses his words carefully to describe how years of spiritual searching have grounded his practice of Judaism, explaining that his study of Buddhism and the mystical traditions of the East give him a new appreciation for his own religious tradition that he hopes will resonate with Miami’s faithful.
“I can envision Temple Israel as being a cultural center for Jewish life, but also a spiritual center,” he said. “Having explored other religions, I know what a spiritual community can be.”
Before coming to Miami, Heyn was rabbi for the Congregation of Shir Heharim (Song of the Mountains) in Vermont. He also ministered to hospice patients, and officiated both Jewish and secular weddings. He began his rabbinical career in Cincinnati after completing a master’s degree and ordination at Hebrew Union College.
Heyn studied music at the Peabody Institute at Johns Hopkins University, which he views as a powerful part of his offering as a religious leader. Although Reform Judaism incorporates less music into its services than more orthodox traditions, Rabbi Tom has found it to be an effective way to reach everyone from enthusiastic children to self-conscious adults.
The rabbi’s musical tastes draw on both modern tunes and the ancient songs that were traditionally sung as a communal experience. In a world of iPods and headphones, where music is often a retreat rather than outreach, he tries to use song to bring people together, even pointing to the Mediterranean influences of Jewish Sephardic music to reach out to Miami’s Hispanic community.
In some ways, the breadth of his experience suits him perfectly to serve a congregation that has long embraced social change and welcomed a diverse membership. Since its founding in 1922, Temple Israel has had a mission of inclusion, following the teaching of Reform Judaism and encouraging fellowship in the community.
Under the leadership of Rabbi Joseph Narot from 1950 until his death in 1980, Temple Israel was the first of Miami’s Jewish institutions to reach out to Christian clergy and African-American leaders. The congregation grew to 1,800 families, but as the city’s middle class Jews moved to the suburbs —and Temple Israel decided to remain at its downtown location — membership fell dramatically.
Now with urban renewal bringing more young professionals and families back to the neighborhood, the synagogue’s leaders are creating a welcoming environment for all who are searching for a spiritual home. Membership is hovering around 400 families — but growing — as Temple Israel responds to the shifting needs of a dynamic community.
“It used to be, once upon a time 40 or 50 years ago, that to be Jewish you had to belong to a synagogue, but in big cities that doesn’t exist,” said Robert Glazier, chairman of the rabbi search committee. “Now you can be a Jew without being a member of a synagogue, so we have to provide something that members can’t get elsewhere.”
He understands that “something” to be a place to ask about “the meaning of life,” and other questions that tug at our modern existence. When the congregation was consulted on what they wanted in a rabbi, the search committee found that many members came to the synagogue for spiritual rather than social reasons and wanted their new leader to reflect this priority.
In many ways, Rabbi Tom was the answer to their prayers. He brings a scholarly knowledge of theology and psychology as well as experience in meditation and Jewish mysticism. As part of the interview process, Heyn was introduced to “a cross-section of members, from 2-year-olds to 90-year-olds,” and related remarkably well to everyone. Even people who were “in different places spiritually, politically, religiously all liked him,” Glazier said.
James Weinkle, chairman of the rabbinic transition committee, described Heyn as having “a very soulful presence about him” that made him seem like the perfect fit for Temple Israel’s diverse needs.
“I spent long hours talking with him, and this man has an ability to really hear people,” Weinkle said of his early conversations with Heyn. “He knows how to listen to people in a way that is such a gift.”
Heyn says he is looking forward to the challenge, and already talking about programs he wants to start or expand. When he describes new meditation workshops and community outreach, the measured thoughtfulness in his voice is momentarily replaced by undeniable enthusiasm.
“There’s something that’s going to happen there that in some ways is going to be radically different, really unique,” he said. “Temple Israel is going to appeal to a whole new generation.”