Beth Ami losing rabbi, a religious community pillar

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When a thin, young rabbi named Jonathan Slater first arrived at the doorstep of Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami in 1982, the older congregants thought that they'd fatten him up.

"They just wanted to give him a pastrami sandwich or something," remembered Ellen Brosbe, a 25-year congregation member.

Now, 19 years later, the strict vegetarian still hasn't gained much weight, physically.

The great weight he carries within his congregation and the larger community, however, is a completely different story.

"He's respected, he's consulted, his opinion is sought," said past Beth Ami president and member Alfred Batzdorff. "He bends over backwards to please everybody; he's universally liked."

This opinion extends way beyond Beth Ami.

"He's one of the pillars of the local religious community who has truly made a difference," said the Rev. James Coffee, pastor at the Community Baptist Church in Santa Rosa.

"I wouldn't spare any adjectives to explain what he's meant to us here."

When Slater announced that he would be leaving the Conservative synagogue at the end of June to concentrate on his own life, the news was met by both the religious and general community with sadness as well as support.

"He's given a lot of himself to this community," said Rabbi George Gittleman of Santa Rosa's Reform Congregation Shomrei Torah. "Although I'm sorely going to miss him, it's about time he get on with his personal life."

He's the guy, added Gittleman "who never says no. His shoes will be hard to fill."

Slater and his partner, Barbara Schecter, will move to the rabbi's native New York in August to be closer to his two sons. His younger son, Derek, will start Harvard, Slater's alma mater, in the fall. Older son, Josh, himself a Harvard graduate, will continue his studies at Rutgers University.

Slater doesn't plan to work again right away but hopes to pursue his deepening interest in the areas of Jewish spirituality, personal transformation and meditation.

"It's hard to go," said Slater. "You build a lot of relationships over time. But I know the congregation is prepared and will make a healthy transition."

Slater was only 29 when he took the Beth Ami pulpit. Despite his young age, he was professional and committed from the get-go.

He also wasn't afraid to get his hands dirty.

"Once we were doing a family program for Chanukah, and the custodian didn't show up," recalled Brosbe, a family educator at the S.F.-based Bureau of Jewish Education, who worked closely with Slater to increase Beth Ami's family education programs.

"Rabbi Slater grabbed the mop and bucket and cleaned the floor of the synagogue himself. He wasn't a prima donna."

The congregation was less than half its current size of 300 households and had been without a rabbi for more than a year when Slater first arrived.

"He found a lot of diverse practices and preferences among the congregants, so he really had to work to put them all on a common denominator," said Batzdorff, who joined the congregation with his wife, Susanne, just weeks after Slater's arrival.

"During his tenure he was able to set a tone which was agreeable to those who were more observant and also not too difficult for those who were more liberal."

Slater, himself more traditional, explained that a particular "movement ideology was just not as significant as an overall approach to inclusiveness and diversity and desire to bring people together."

This melting pot of Jewish identities, he said, was the most exciting part of his job as Beth Ami's rabbi.

He also has particularly fond memories of stargazing in the community garden during a Saturday night Havdallah service that included spices plucked from the garden.

And he loved the annual latke parties that drew hundreds of people, both Jewish and non-Jewish, from throughout the community as well as the joint services between Beth Ami and Gittleman's Shomrei Torah.

Gittleman, who was actually married by Slater, studied Torah with his "good friend" every Thursday morning.

"He was really as good a colleague as one could hope to have," said Gittleman. "Even though our congregations could be seen as competing Jewish organizations, he never let it interfere in our relationship."

But Slater's ability to solidify diversity and differences also extended beyond the temple and into community work.

"He was always looking for the common ground," said Coffee, who worked with Slater on the Interfaith, Interdenominational Minister's Association and its Hate Free Community project. "From A to Z and zero to nine he always found a way to say, 'We can all work together and do this.'"

The two clergymen, who have taken turns leading each other's congregations, often "bypassed the denominational wall." For the past three years, for instance, they have taken part in an interfaith Thanksgiving celebration.

When Coffee's church was torched by arsonists in September 1985, Slater "was one of the first ones to come and see me and to offer help." And when Coffee found hateful anti-Semitic, anti-black messages rubber banded around a local free newspaper five years ago, Slater "was the first person I called to see what steps we should take."

The African-American Baptist minister, who said, "In a lifetime we're blessed to get even five real friends," added that Slater is "one I consider to be a real friend."

Needless to say, he'll be "a little bit lonely for awhile, just knowing he's not around."