Art Sheldon started going to Temple Israel five years ago. For one, the synagogue is close to his home. But the major reason is Rabbi Tom Heyn.
“I’ve become very fond of him,” he said. “He’s a very dear friend.”
Heyn was selected in the 2012 search for a new rabbi after Jody Cohen completed her contract and went on to provide end-of-life pastoral care. Past president Ben Kuehne led the rabbi search process during his presidency.
“Rabbi Tom is a tremendous rabbi who has taken our Jewish values and promoted them both within our community and congregation and out. That is what an effective and involved rabbi should be doing. I’m a big fan of Rabbi Tom,” Kuehne said.
Now five years later, he is facing the same fate as the rabbi before him. The Reform temple’s board decided, without the input of congregants, not to renew his contract, which runs through June 2018.
“Now this temple is in the course of changes, and they’re painful. They’re some varying in influence, some of the super heavies are not so crazy about him. And us ordinary folks love him,” Sheldon said.
Why was the decision made, despite the overwhelming desire for their congregants to keep him?
The board of trustees hasn’t said. And they won’t, the congregant said.
“There has not been what everyone hopes to achieve, and that is total transparency. That’s been elusive, either by design or conformation with the bylaws,” he said.
On Thursday, the rabbi sent an email to the congregation stating that in order to preserve both his “well-being” and that of the temple, he would move on even if his contract were extended.
To force the board to provide answers, congregant Richard Brodsky created an online petition that gained almost a 100 signatures. The dedicated temple members vowed to disrupt the annual meeting in which a slate of board members — many of whom currently serve — was to be approved and sworn in on June 23. He referenced Article 10, Section 2 of the temple bylaws, requesting a special meeting to address the board.
“I have no idea exactly why the Board of Trustees, by a close vote, decided not to renew Rabbi Tom’s contract, but I suspect it had something to do with his political (i.e., Israel-Focused) views,” Brodsky wrote. “ If this is so, it is, in my view, not a legitimate basis by which to measure a rabbi’s performance. There is more than enough reason for debate within the Jewish community both in the Diaspora and in Israel concerning the ability of the State of Israel to continue as a democratic Jewish state under the prevailing circumstances.”
Another commenter, Alexis Brown, called for members to come to the dinner and demand a choice in the decision.
For many like Brown, it feels as if a family has split.
“All we can do now is work through it. We’re a family, and we want to resolve this issue internally. We are in uncharted waters,” Alexis Brown said.
Other comments expressed confusion and sadness over the decision. Many said that the rabbi was their reason for attending the synagogue.
“On behalf of our mother, Betsy Kaplan, who was a member of Temple Israel from 1953 until her death earlier this year. She really appreciated rabbi Heyn’s attention to the congregation, and to her during her illness, and his perspective at services. We, her children, respect the rabbi and felt he was kind and caring to our mom throughout his time at the temple. We were surprised to learn his contract was not renewed and would support a full congregation discussion of this,” the Kaplan family wrote.
But temple members didn’t get their chance at the annual meeting. The meeting, in an unprecedented move, was postponed to June 30.
Then on June 30, angry about the process surrounding Rabbi Tom’s dismissal, members voted down the reelection of the synagogue officers and board, for the first time in the synagogue’s very long history. The bylaws did not prepare for this situation, Sheldon said.
Now the 95-year-old temple at 137 NE 19th St., is faced with electing a new board and dealing with the unrest after the decision to not extend the rabbi’s contract, he said. For Sheldon, the temple will always be a warm and welcoming place. But the status of the beloved rabbi has created a need for temple members to exercise their rights. Sheldon sent a mass email to members July 11, begging them to be more active in the politics of their temple.
“We don’t want to dwell on the past. ... We want to show a new Board that the old ways have been rejected and should remain just that … the old ways,” he wrote.
One member replied to the email, stating that they did not “agree with the method of revolt.”
Those like Sheldon worry for the fate of their friend and beloved rabbi.
“I’m heartbroken that he’s going through this aggravation. Hopefully [the board of trustees] will reverse their decision not to renew his contract,” he said.
Board President Howard Goldstein, who was on the rejected slate, could not be reached for comment.
“It is written in “Pirkei Avot” [The Ethics of the Fathers], ‘Who is wise? He who learns from all.’ In the upcoming months, this could not be more true. The members of Temple Israel will meet and talk together about who we are, who we seek to be, what is important in our common life together, and what traits we wish in our next Rabbi,” he wrote in a newsletter to the congregation.