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Clergy Profile: Rabbi Micah Hyman

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When a young and energetic rabbi assumed the helm of Congregation Beth Sholom in the summer of 2007, the lay leaders who brought him on board were not looking for a spiritual leader cut from the same cloth of Beth Sholom’s two highly popular and influential predecessors.  They were seeking someone to energize and excite their community.  All seem to agree their choice was spot on.   

Rabbi Micah Hyman says that he is not like Rabbi Saul E. White, who was Beth Sholom’s first rabbi and provided 40 years of skilled oratory and political leadership.  And unlike Rabbi Alan Lew, who steered the congregation on a course of increased social activism and Buddhist-Jewish Spiritual practice, Hyman does not seek inner strength through meditation.     

Last July when Rabbi Hyman declared “Call me Micah, or if it gives you strength, Rabbi Hyman, just please don’t call me Rabbi Micah,” Beth Sholom’s congregation was challenged to take notice of this southern California native, knowing this was not your everyday rabbi candidate.  Perhaps the congregation discovered as much about itself as it did about the person who was about to lead them.

“I used to get, ‘you don’t look like a rabbi – you don’t even look Jewish!’ so I would say, ‘hmm, you don’t look like a narrow minded bigot, either!”  But as a leader of an institution, I don’t come off quite the same way,” Rabbi Hyman explains, in what is now viewed as a serious understatement.  The Richmond District congregation soon learned that this young but worldly rabbi is remarkably comfortable with complexity.  

“I love teaching art, but I am not the museum rabbi,” Rabbi Hyman explains.  “I lived in Paris, but I am not the francophone rabbi.  I have a wife and two young children, but I am not the kiddie rabbi.  People say you need a hook, your thing for people to flock around, but San Franciscan’s aren’t sheep. I say to myself: it’s the Torah, stupid.  Just teach, preach and be present to where people are in their lives and the synagogue’s agendas will present themselves organically.”  

“A combination of trusting my instincts and not trying to make everything happen at once has helped me become comfortable with my role,” says Hyman, noting that he has changed tremendously in the year he has been here.  “I am not the crazy rebel I thought I was.  I thought I was a rebel, now I’m the suit. I am a Conservative rabbi who was raised by the movement and I relish the opportunity to grow and change as we grow as a 21st century Conservative congregation.”

St. Patrick Recycled

Giving a twist to St. Patrick’s shamrock, Rabbi Hyman likes to point to the ubiquitous recycling sign as a metaphor for Conservative Judaism:  Conserve, Reconstruct, Renew.  

“We don’t have to be all three things for every person,” he states.  “But as people grow and change, our institution needs the strength and ability and desire to adapt. We live in a city that mandates diversity, and we see that here in our community.  When a transgender sits next to a Russian immigrant sits next to a neo-orthodox man all saying kaddish (memorial prayers) for a loved one, I know I am at home.”

He reflects about the historic role of religion in society, noting that religion was the catalyst for change in the face of powerful institutions, and now religion has become the powerful institution.  Against this backdrop, Rabbi Hyman likes to use metaphorical prose to shape the challenges facing today’s Beth Sholom.  

“When someone asks what does Judaism say about x, or, what is Beth Sholom’s policy about y, I believe they are missing the point about authentic Jewish practice.  It is about the interplay of x and y.  It is about the challenge of authentic practice that does not feel forced or trendy.  It is about feeling comfortable enough to say, ‘I am uncomfortable with parts our tradition and what are we going to do to address that.’  Usually the advocates for change will become the preservers of the status quo.”

The Richmond District congregation soon learned that this young but world-wise rabbi is remarkably comfortable with dichotomy.  He uses liturgical texts, transliterations, translations and explanations that connect in today’s pluralistic world that is bombarded with media messages and visual communications. He knows there is a perceived chasm between ancient tradition and refreshing messages that can reach beyond the congregations’ 500 families.

“It will take great strength and courage to provide both stability and tradition while being creative and expanding our roles,” he says.   But in many ways, Rabbi Hyman has done exactly that, often choosing a path that is somewhat contrary.  For example, in college at the University of Michigan, he selected a non-Jewish fraternity so he could experience a more secular organization.  Even his reason to attend rabbinical school reflects a somewhat contrarian ambition for growth, change and understanding.

“When I went to rabbinical school, I knew the traditional pulpit rabbi life was not for me,” he explains.  “I continued my Jewish education to confirm who I was as well as who I would not be.”  

Resolution in Art Studies

The inner debate has often been difficult.  He wrestled with theology.  He questioned how he would serve the community if he allowed himself to be a scholarly rabbi living in a perceived ivory tower.  Interestingly, he found resolution through his study of art after taking a position at the Israel Museum while studying at the School of Jerusalem.

“My cultural life flourished through the study of art,” Rabbi Hyman remembers.  “And I found that art helped me see the complex relationship between aesthetics and religion.  We debated theology, history, high art, low art, and the essence of the good life.  And there was never an agreement.”

He discovered that he was most comfortable with difficult questions and complex problems, especially those without a black and white answer.  “I am drawn to issues of hybridity and the constructed-authentic self,” he explains.  “And I found that accepting minority opinions is a sacred tenant of traditional conservative teaching.  It was a revelation that mirrored my life because up to then I had stayed a Conservative Jew even though I did not consider myself ‘institutionally Jewish’.”

Rabbi Hyman acknowledges that Conservative Judaism left him in doubt as the movement shifted to the right in the 1990s.   But he also discovered that he never truly left the Conservative Jewish world.    

“I stayed Conservative even when I was a bit lost in my own inner debate.  But the movement had space for it,” he explains.  “The breadth of the movement is its strength.  And I find the plurality of the Jewish experience in history, and right now today, is what makes Beth Sholom such a desirable space.  We can experiment with modern thinking, while rooted in traditions and texts that are timeless.”

Tradition Versus Avant-garde

By now, it is clear just how comfortable Rabbi Hyman is with the complex.  He has committed Beth Sholom to Hebrew language services even though many members of the congregation do not understand Hebrew.  Meanwhile, he worries about people who only want the past.  He knows that people reject the synagogue as a place of spirit because it is inaccessible and archaic.  But others embrace the synagogue because it is authentic and timeless.  

“We can’t be everything to everyone,” he asserts.  “But we can reach out to Jews and non-Jews without watering down our traditions.  We can reach out to inter-married couples with the same understanding and respect we have for intra-marriage couples.  After all, they face the same problems.  

“We can be a mixture of traditional and the avant-garde,” he asserts.  And to advance Rabbi Hyman’s position, he is working with the congregation to bridge the gaps between a liturgy steeped in tradition and reaching out with fresh messages that resonate with a modern culture.  In many ways the opening of the 24,000 sq. ft. multi-purpose synagogue facility is the physical representation that merges Beth Sholom’s tradition with the contemporary.

He praises the architects for “delivering a vessel that elevates the soul and supports the necessities of the spiritual life,” especially study, prayer, organization, celebration reflection, intimacy and public space.  He envisions a vibrant space that teems with action:  social action, political action, and “the action of inaction” such as meditation, art, prayer, learning, arguments and beauty.

“In addition to our work as a Congregation, I see Beth Sholom as a safe place for people who are burnt out, losing it, or have lost it.  When they are here, we want to give them a reason to return,” he says.  “I would like to serve people outside of our original base in the Richmond.  This will make us better and stronger.  And it will make us different.”

When people think of Beth Sholom, Rabbi Hyman hopes they will smile with pride,  “not smiles of nostalgia,” he says, “but because Beth Sholom has touched them in a profound way.” 

Road to Beth Sholom

Prior to joining Congregation Beth Sholom in July 2007, Rabbi Micah Hyman was an interfaith chaplain at UCLA Medical Center.  For four years he provided spiritual care for families and patients in chronic pain and for those facing death.  Rabbi Hyman coordinated care and resources for patients, families, and staff and developed a new model of hospital rotation for rabbinical students, helping them deal with trauma in the hospital in their capacity as spiritual caregivers. 

Rabbi Hyman was an interim rabbi for two years at Adath Shalom, a Conservative synagogue in Paris.  While in France, he was the liaison for Masorti Olami, an organization that develops Conservative Jewish communities in underprivileged regions.

From 1999 to 2002, he was assistant director of Camp Ramah in Ojai, Calif., where he organized camping programs for families and seniors.  At the same time he served as an educator and curator for Jewish museums in New York, Chicago, Morocco and Los Angeles. 

Rabbi Hyman received a bachelor’s degree in history from the University of Michigan.  He holds a master’s degree in Hebrew letters from the University of Judaism in Los Angeles.  He received a master’s degree in Jewish art and was ordained in 1999 at the Jewish Theological Seminary in New York.

He lives in San Francisco and is married to Erin and the father of Nathan and Theo.

 
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