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New leader takes helm of Jewish congregation

Ilana Schwartzman
Ilana Schwartzman

SALT LAKE CITY — Following in the spiritual footsteps of her father, grandfather and great uncle, a new leader will be at the helm of Utah's largest Jewish congregation. And her journey leading up to this point has been an interesting one.

Third-generation rabbi Ilana Schwartzman will be formally welcomed to lead Congregation Kol Ami in Salt Lake City at 7:30 tonight following the weekly Havdallah Service, closing the Jewish Sabbath.

"There is no formal ceremony or Jewish ritual (to install Schwartzman)," said Diane Hartz Warsoff, a volunteer on the Kol Ami Installation Committee. "It's more an acknowledgement of her coming and a nice way to welcome her to the community."

Warsoff said Mayor Peter Coroon will speak to the congregation along with newly appointed Rabbi Schwartzman and her father, Rabbi Joel R. Schwartzman, who will provide his own insights which "makes it even more special."

After the ceremony, the eventful evening will conclude with dessert, live music and dancing at the synagogue.

All of this may seem like a strange departure for someone who originally wanted to be a high school English teacher.

After earning her bachelor's degree in English from the University of Virginia in 2001, Schwartzman decided to seek other opportunities for fulfillment.

"I moved to New York City to work for a friend of the family in the financial world, but I wasn't very unhappy," Schwartzman said in a telephone interview Wednesday. "I went to synagogues to keep myself sane and grounded. One day, I woke up with the realization that if I enjoyed that so much, I should pursue it."

From there, the young rabbi headed off to rabbinical school — a five-year process in which Schwartzman spent her first year in Jerusalem and the final four in Cincinnati at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, receiving her master's of Hebrew Letters and Rabbinic Ordination in 2007.

Previously an assistant rabbi at Temple Beth Zion in Buffalo, N.Y., Schwartzman — in her early 30s — in many ways represents the face of Judaism in Utah and is bridging a generational as well as a cultural gap.

"Our congregation has two kinds of Judaism that get practiced concurrently — the Conservative and Reform movements," she said. "Kol Ami looked at rabbis from both movements … (and) I came up being a good match."

According to its web site, Congregation Kol Ami is a fusion of two older congregations — Reform Congregation B'nai Israel, founded in 1891, and Conservative Congregation Montefiore, founded in 1899.

"Both are sort of liberal branches with some differences in theology, ritual and practice," said Schwartzman, a student of the Reform movement. "The Conservative branch follows more Jewish laws, whereas in Reformed Judaism, you have more of a choice whether or not to follow the laws."

Kol Ami, meaning "all my people," is a self-declared "forward-looking" and "inclusive" synagogue striving to serve the "unique needs of our Jewish community."

Boasting roughly 375 family units, Congregation Kol Ami — while not very large in the country — is still the biggest Jewish congregation in Utah.

In a state predominantly influenced by other, larger faiths — and with a total Jewish population of about 4,000 — Schwartzman said she looks forward to her installation and subsequent opportunity to unite her members and promote a thriving sense of community.

"I'm thrilled to be here," she said. "It's a wonderful congregation … (and) I hope to be here for a while to help them develop. There are still a lot of questions that come up since we have two branches (of Judaism). I hope to continue to bridge some of the differences and represent Kol Ami to the larger community."