As a boy, Rabbi Joshua Hearshen never understood why his friends disliked going to synagogue.
Hearshen enjoyed everything about Jewish community life. From High Holidays to Jewish school, the traditions just felt right to him and, at age 16, Hearshen told his parents he wanted to become a rabbi. They, of course, beamed with pride, he said.
A graduate of Michigan State University, Hearshen, 34, received his master's in rabbinic studies in 2007, began his career as an assistant rabbi in Washington state and later served in New York. In July, he accepted his first position as a senior rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in Tampa.
The community will celebrate with Hearshen, his wife, Carrie, and their 4-year-old daughter at a rabbi installation ceremony tonight at the synagogue.
What brought you to Florida?
Rodeph, the synagogue, the community and the potential for greatness. Florida is just Florida. Really, I'm not a hot weather person or anything like that. I saw a community that I wanted to partner with and that I think I can bring to a higher level than it has ever been. It also doesn't hurt that it's down the road from Disney World.
You previously served as an assistant and associate rabbi. How is it different being a senior rabbi?
I sleep a lot less now. As an assistant, you focus mostly on programs and getting to know the congregation. Now I do those things but I have a lot more responsibilities. I am a lot more involved in the management of the institution on a day-to-day basis. Everything goes through my office.
What specifically attracted you to Rodeph Sholom?
I saw a lot of programs I liked here, like Jammies and Jeans, which is a great community dinner for families. Rodeph has a great day school, Hillel Academy, which I'm happy my daughter gets to be a student at and my wife gets to teach at. Rodeph has a great and involved women's league, which was very important to me.
As a young rabbi at a conservative synagogue, how do you respect tradition but also make changes?
The art of change is something to be very cautious about, because we need to preserve what has been done but we also need to move forward. Like now we play hockey in the parking lot during Shabbat, so we have our tradition but we are also doing something different. We just had our first Parsha and Poker, where we learn the Torah together and then we play cards.
I don't find it difficult to keep tradition and do new things because it is who I am. On a daily basis, I confront these things. What is important is the message still speaks to us no matter what.
The problem is we fell off message 30 or 50 years ago. We stopped talking about the importance of forming a relationship with God. We became focused on hurt and remembering the Holocaust. Of course we should remember those things, but they aren't the reason to be Jewish. Being Jewish is also about having and starting to have a relationship with family, community and God. When you don't have that, you are lacking and when you do you feel warmth.
What is the significance of an installation ceremony?
An installation is not a religious ceremony. It is a celebration and a public declaration of a change of leadership. There is no oath or anything like that. It's a symbolic gesture. I am really excited about it. Mayor Bob Buckhorn will be there and Rep. Kathy Castor. Also, Councilman Harry Cohen, who attends Rodeph.
What do you do when you aren't working?
I like to read. I like movies. I like playing and watching hockey. I like cards.
Are you a Tampa Bay Lightning fan?
I've adopted them as my newest team. I like the Red Wings, the Islanders and now I wear my Lightning jersey proudly. The first game of theirs I went to, they won.