Rabbi Zalman Heber
Personal philosophy: “To be partners with God and to make the world a better place.”
He just built a huge new Jewish center in Tacoma, but why stop there? Two weeks after the ribbon-cutting ceremony, Rabbi Zalman Heber already has his sights set on outgrowing the building.
“There’s a lot of work,” he says. “Reaching every single Jew in Pierce County, it could be our entire life.”
The Brooklynite and father of five children under the age of 10 comes from a long line of rabbis in Poland and Israel. A student and emissary of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, Heber makes it his job to create a space for Jews to understand their purpose in this world.
“That is the central point of Judaism,” he says. “My lifelong mission is dedicated and devoted to promoting this concept in Pierce County.”
In 2003, Heber moved from New York to Tacoma to build a Chabad presence. The only other Jewish institution in that city is the Reform Temple Beth El.
In nine years, Heber built enough of a community to warrant building a larger space. He says he just wants to provide for “people looking for more religion, perhaps.
“In the beginning, you start with a handful of people coming to your Friday night dinner,” he says. “Then it snowballs and people realize you’re here to serve them.” In time, a need and desire for religious services and classes emerged.
Heber did most of the fundraising and building planning on his own. “It’s a one- man show,” he says.
While his most impressive accomplishment comes down to getting the building off the ground — and a tiresome journey navigating zoning issues and neighborly relations — Heber’s real accomplishment is, he says, “when all of a sudden you see that there’s a community coming together.
“A lot of Jews all of a sudden feeling and experiencing this community that they never felt before, that’s a very accomplished feeling,” he says. “A man burst out in tears and said he never had a place he could call his own synagogue.”
The rabbi also found himself wrapped up in politics this year. When a Jewish man succumbed to hypothermia on Mount Rainier in December, his family reached out to Heber in order to stop the Pierce County medical examiner from performing an autopsy. Autopsies are contrary to Jewish law, but refusing an autopsy when unusual conditions are involved is contrary to Washington State law.
“I simply got a call from the family,” says Heber. “At that point, it was just to facilitate the transfer of the body.”
But a legal battle ensued, and Heber, joined by several Jewish organizations and the government affairs department of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, helped to push a bill to allow families to refuse an autopsy on religious grounds within 48 hours of a death. The Senate passed the bill 46–2 on Feb. 9, but it languished in the House and never made it to the governor’s desk.
While Heber says he will resume the fight in next year’s legislative session, he did feel a sense of accomplishment when the man’s body was returned to the family.
Now that he’s in his new spiritual home, Rabbi Heber wants to continue reaching out to the Jewish community and building “a place where they can feel at home.
“People should just know that there is a place where they can call home, and pray, study, and discover their Judaism.”