Rabbi Jay Heyman’s first job in 1974 included all the usual: Shabbat, challah, tallit, Torah.
And the not-so-usual. Like a death threat.
Within six months of relocating to Charleston, W.Va., to work at the city’s only synagogue, rumors circulated around town that the Ku Klux Klan was plotting to kill Heyman, his wife and his two children.
For several weeks, until authorities could investigate further, he and his family didn’t go anywhere without a police escort. Their house was constantly monitored.
Still, he stayed in Charleston for five more years.
“I needed to be there. That was my job,” he said. “I was determined it wasn’t going to inhibit in any way my carrying out my responsibilities. You can’t run from these kind of things.”
He expects his new job as the rabbi of Kol Hadash in El Cerrito, the area’s only shul for Humanistic Judaism, to be slightly more relaxed. He became the official, full-time rabbi in September, just before Rosh Hashanah.
Heyman moved to San Francisco four years ago for a one-year pastoral counseling fellowship at UCSF Medical Center. He wasn’t looking for a congregation. After the fellowship ended, he started a private spiritual counseling center called Shalom Spiritual Resources.
That’s when he unexpectedly met members from Kol Hadash, whose rabbi had recently left. They liked each other immediately. Heyman began to lead services on an as-needed basis.
Soon, Heyman realized he missed the pulpit, missed having a captive audience every week. And Kol Hadash wanted a new leader.
“I think he realized after he found us and started conducting random services that something was missing from his life,” said Marcia Grossman, past president of Kol Hadash. “And we met his philosophical needs in a way traditional synagogues do not.”
Heyman, 63, grew up in Little Rock, Ark., during the civil rights movement, “at a time when a lot of Jews were trying to figure out their role in the South.”
After high school, he enrolled in a pre-rabbinic program at the University of Cincinnati. Before starting school at the nearby Hebrew Union College, he took a year off and lived in Israel. The year was 1967.
“The Six-Day War had a huge impact on me,” he said. “It was the first time it dawned on me that Israel had such a precarious existence.”
He returned to the states a Zionist and was ordained as a Reform rabbi in 1971. He worked as an assistant rabbi at a 1,200-family synagogue in Houston before moving to Charleston.
After West Virginia, Heyman spent time at synagogues in Washington, D.C., and Georgia, and did seven years as a U.S. Navy chaplain, where he was one of 13 rabbis out of 1,200 chaplains. He worked on military bases in Japan, Singapore, Guam, Honolulu and San Diego.
“I got this wandering bug to live in different places,” he said.
He followed his Pacific Rim “tour” by spending two years each at congregations in Seattle and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Since the islands grow none of their own food, and he and his wife are vegans, they found the Caribbean a difficult place to live.
Heyman accepted the one-year fellowship at UCSF in 2002 and worked as a chaplain at the V.A. Hospital in Palo Alto before finally connecting with Kol Hadash.
He started family services at Kol Hadash, and helped hire a religious school director. He hopes in the future to establish satellite prayer circles around the Bay Area, since the geography and traffic make it hard for everyone who is interested in Humanistic Judaism to attend services at the Albany Community Center, where Kol Hadash meets.
“He’s gentle, warm, engaging and a down-to-earth person,” said Cliff Rechtschaffen of Oakland. “I liked the way he led the service in a very unpretentious way, and connected directly with people.”
The synagogue provides an alternative for Jews who want to maintain a connection to their heritage but are not comfortable within traditional synagogues. It has about 100 families. Heyman said he prefers to work with small congregations.
“Rabbis with small congregations become much more involved in the everyday lives of their people,” he said. “You really become part of the family.”
Kol Hadash has Shabbat services the fourth Friday of each month, and has Family Shabbat twice a month. For more information, visit www.kolhadash.org or call (510) 428-1492.