Rabbi turns vintage objects into artistic jewelry

Doug Heifetz, former rabbi of Oseh Shalom in Laurel, makes his art in a repurposed basement laundry room. Photo by Jared Foretek.

Doug Heifetz never considered himself an artist.

Expressive, yes. Spiritual, absolutely — he was the rabbi at Oseh Shalom in Laurel for 11 years. But while watching TV late one night in 2015, his life took a turn for the artistic.

He wanted something to do with his hands and thought back to college, when he’d once bent forks into bracelets. So he dug around online and discovered a large community of metalworkers crafting handmade jewelry.

“I wanted to try everything I saw,” Heifetz says, sitting in the dining room of his Silver Spring home. “Ever since then my mind has been just full of new ideas, sometimes inspired by what others have done and some just my own. But by no means did I anticipate it as a career move. It was just a thing to do late at night.”

Not long after that night in front of the TV, his plans changed. Earlier this year, he left the bima to pursue metalwork, and what started as a small-scale Etsy operation to recoup the cost of supplies has become a full-time job of sourcing material, crafting the pieces, marketing his wares to shops and selling directly online. He says revenue is split almost evenly between wholesale and retail.

His website, Lost & Forged, showcases necklaces made from forks, gemstone rings and a menorah crafted from iced tea spoons. His work has been featured at the Golden Globes and on ABC Family’s “The Fosters,” and last Sunday he became the first artist in residence at the home décor and furniture store West Elm Baltimore in the Fell’s Point neighborhood.

“Things kind of took off more than I dreamed. It lets my imagination run wild in a way that I’ve found satisfying and productive,” he says. “And over time I’ve seen that it sparks other peoples’ imagination and lets them see things in a new way. There’s an element of surprise that really delights.”

He says there’s a creative impulse he can’t turn off now. “I see flatware butter spreaders and I think, ‘Those are obviously cuff bracelets!’”

Heifetz, 43, grew up in St. Louis, Mo. He came to Washington in 1992 to attend Georgetown University. He went to Philadelphia to purse the rabbinate at Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. He was ordained in 2005 and was hired at Oseh Shalom the next year.

He said members were surprised when in 2016 he told them why he planned to leave, but that the congregation was supportive. He gave about a year’s notice so that the synagogue could arrange as smooth a transition as possible.

“During Shabbat and holidays and at peoples’ life cycle events, I was excited and enthusiastic about being there,” he says. “But increasingly, during the week I found myself really wanting my mind free to work on my art and to build my business. … People were very lovely and supportive. I left with really great feelings about the community and, hopefully, it’s mostly mutual.”

He says there’s a strong connection between his craft and his faith. Much of the work consists of repurposing old silver flatware and other objects, transforming them into something fresh and new that showcase his artistry. And he hasn’t completely left the rabbinate. He’s rabbi emeritus at Oseh Shalom, assisting occasionally with life cycle events and other functions. He, his wife and two school-aged children are affiliated with Temple Emanuel in Kensington.

He says his Judaism often inspires his work.

“I think of it as drawing something out of the past and giving new life and meaning to something that otherwise might be kind of dead,” he says of his jewelry, adding that he sometimes engraves scriptural quotes and Jewish symbols into his work. “It might be a real treasure, but it needs to be properly revived and properly adjusted, and that’s a key impulse and instinct in my Jewish life as a rabbi.”

Heifetz mostly uses silver-plated and sterling silver flatware, though he’ll employ copper, brass cabinet hardware, and more if he comes across something he likes. He also does some engraving and stone-setting.

He is largely self-taught — with lots of help from YouTube, message boards and Facebook groups — but Heifetz did attend an eight-session course at the JewelryClassDC last year. Before the classes, he was having trouble with simple soldering. Fast forward and he’s making menorahs from iced tea spoons, which he’s particularly proud of and excited to sell (at $500 on his website) in time for Chanukah.

Still, it’s a small operation — Heifetz works alone in his repurposed basement laundry room. There it takes him about five hours to build something as complex as the menorahs, sleek and elegant pieces on which the spoon stems bend out from the center to create the candleholders. Typically, he completely flattens the flatware with a mallet and anvil, treats it with heat to soften it up, and then — when it’s back to room temperature — molds it using a vice and pliers.

“It took me a long time just to figure out how to make all these pieces hold together and hold candles in a way that’s safe and functional, and how to get it reasonably polished without breaking apart,” he says of the menorah.

No longer a full-time rabbi, Heifetz has time to scour the internet, antique shops and estate sales for the elements of his next creation.

“I’m interested in taking something from the past and giving it new life in a way that enriches our lives today. We can breathe new life into things if we use enough creativity.”

jforetek@midatlanticmedia.com

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