When Rabbi Moshe Tom Heyn was planning his move from Miami to Half Moon Bay last summer, he did what many Jews would do and called the local rabbi — in this case, Ted Riter of Coastside Jewish Community.
They chatted, and then Riter dropped something unusual into the conversation: “He said, ‘By the way, I’m leaving,’” Heyn recalled.
Now it’s Heyn who is the local rabbi, taking the helm as Coastside’s first leader who also lives in the area served by the congregation.
“It’s just really fortuitous,” said Chip Goldstein, the congregation’s president. “For the first time we have a spiritual leader living [here].”
Coastside Jewish Community started out in the early 1990s and today stands at around 50 families. The congregation has its own Torah but does not own a building.
“I can take you to two churches in Half Moon Bay and say, ‘That’s our synagogue,’” Goldstein said with a laugh.
With families coming from Pacifica to Pescadero, CJC is used to having a dispersed congregation and relying on part-time rabbis — and that’s just fine, Goldstein said.
“We’ve always had to have spiritual leaders who have other things going on,” he said.
The community was led for about 15 years by Jhos Singer and Julie Batz, now of Chochmat HaLev in Berkeley; others who did stints include Rabbi Serena Eisenberg, currently Northern California director of the American Jewish Committee, and Rabbi Jane Litman, now Western regional director at the Jewish Reconstructionist Federation.
But none lived nearby, and having commuting leaders meant difficulties with scheduling. Heyn, 59, works as a hospice chaplain and is also part-time, but being based in Half Moon Bay greatly expands what the community can offer, Goldstein said.
Heyn said the joy of being local is making everyday connections with his congregants.
“You run into them at New Leaf grocery, and Safeway and the post office,” he said.
I can take you to two churches in Half Moon Bay and say, ‘That’s our synagogue.’
The Baltimore native took a circuitous path to his current career. He dropped out of Hebrew school in third grade. As a young man, he turned to nature to find a sense of the divine, then explored Hinduism and Buddhism.
“I was like many young people who left Judaism to seek spirituality,” he said.
He left college to spend 10 years in a San Francisco ashram before coming back to Judaism, a move sparked by talking with rabbis and reading more about the religion.
“It dawned on me that Judaism was essentially a spiritual path, and that was a return to my roots,” he said.
He finished college and received rabbinical ordination from Hebrew Union College. He worked as a chaplain before becoming a pulpit rabbi, most recently in Miami, and then decided to move back to the Bay Area.
Drawn by Half Moon Bay’s beautiful hills and coast, he made the call to Riter. He identifies himself as a JuBu (Jewish Buddhist) and meditates at a Burmese Buddhist center in Half Moon Bay.
CJC has always prided itself on being a place for all Jews, no matter how they practice. Dealing with different expectations has been a struggle sometimes, Goldstein said, but the community has managed to stay together with a core of longtime members and a growing number of families with children.
“We’re a very eclectic congregation because we are really centered more around geography than around the type of Judaism,” he said.
Heyn finds that diversity is appealing and says he likes to describe CJC as a “spiritual community without walls.”
“I think it’s a perfect microcosm of the larger Jewish world,” the rabbi said. “It’s very diverse and we don’t always agree. But that’s what makes it so endearing.”
Heyn’s hiring wasn’t hired just because he lived nearby, of course; the community conducted a nationwide search and narrowed it down to top candidates. But Goldstein and Heyn both agreed that there was something serendipitous about the fact that Heyn was looking for a new home on the coast just when CJC was looking for a new leader.
“It’s just a lovely community and I’m just so happy,” Heyn said. “It’s almost like it was meant to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else.”