With new daughter, Rabbi Schwartzman is leaving, so Utah’s largest Jewish synagogue looks for new leader

Scott Sommerdorf | The Salt Lake Tribune The Reverend Patty C. Willis, left, of the Unitarian Church speaks with Rabbi Ilana Schwartzman of Salt Lake County's Jewish Congregation Kol Ami at a press conference at Khadeeje Islamic Center in West Valley City, Thursday, December 17, 2015. Noor Ul-Hasan and invited politicos and other interfaith reps joined together to announce "Wear a Hijab" and other headgear on Friday as a show of support for Muslims.

For more than seven years, Ilana Schwartzman has led Utah’s largest Jewish congregation, but the third-generation rabbi and first-time mother is leaving Salt Lake City’s Congregation Kol Ami to be closer to family on the East Coast.

“With the changes to my family makeup [she now has a baby daughter], I am looking forward to [moving] closer to [husband] Art’s and my support systems,” the 39-year-old rabbi recently announced to her 350-family east-side synagogue.

When she met her then-husband-to-be, Art Kieres, who was reared Catholic, she warned him that the relationship could last only if he converted.

He had problems, at the time, with organized religion. If Judaism were more like a book club, he told her then, he could readily join.

“It is a book club,” Schwartzman retorted, “it is The Book club.”

So Kieres moved to Utah from Buffalo, N.Y., with Schwartzman and converted.

That experience, the rabbi said in an earlier profile for The Salt Lake Tribune, gave her personal perspective on one of her ongoing assignments: officiating at conversions.

“A Jew by choice,” she said, “is still a Jew.”

And Schwartzman comes from a long line of Jewish leaders. Her father was an Air Force chaplain for two decades and her grandfather taught at a prestigious Jewish seminary.

Though her contract with Kol Ami doesn’t officially expire until the end of June, Schwartzman took maternity leave after the birth of her daughter and has been traveling this fall. Her last services in Salt Lake City will come during Passover from March 30 to April 7, after which she will depart for a previously planned sabbatical to travel, research and write.

Meanwhile, Kol Ami has been busy seeking candidates from both the Reform and Conservative movements to replace Schwartzman beginning July 1, 2018.

More than a dozen rabbis had applied as of Monday, and more candidates are expected in the coming months. Those selected for consideration will meet with the search committee and congregation, with a final decision and announcement expected in March of next year.

With Kol Ami’s membership split in half between the Reform and Conservative movements, the panel says it is taking care in its selections.

Schwartzman hails from Judaism’s Reform wing, which stresses ethics and values over observance of dietary and other laws of the faith, and does its prayers mostly in English.

Reform Judaism also does not hold that the Torah (the first five books of the Bible) was written by God, then handed down to Moses, as stricter Orthodox Jews maintain.

Schwartzman followed Rabbi Tracee Rosen (2003-2010), who was from the Conservative movement, which generally observes traditional laws and practices. Scripture comes from God, albeit through human transmission, Conservatives believe.

Rosen, who also was Kol Ami’s first openly lesbian rabbi, had, in turn, replaced Frederick Wenger (1987-2003), who was a Reform rabbi.

Jim Isaacson, who co-leads the search committee, pointed to Kol Ami’s recent history of alternating rabbis from the two movements, but that does not mean its next rabbi will be Conservative.

More important, he said, is finding a rabbi able to serve congregants of both perspectives.