Beth Ami enters Schlesinger era with new rabbi

In a sense Rabbi Jonathan Slater and Rabbi George Schlesinger have traded places.

Slater moved to New York last month to be closer to family, leaving behind his job as rabbi at Santa Rosa's Congregation Beth Ami.

Schlesinger made a similar move for the exact same reason, only in the opposite direction. He left the East Coast behind, taking over Slater's spot at the Conservative temple, as of Aug. 1.

"Rabbi Slater was here for 19 years, so his are difficult shoes to fill," said Schlesinger, a native Californian, who returns — albeit a little bit grayer — after 15 years as a rabbi in Marlboro, N.J.

"The congregation has been most gracious and welcoming and generous in saying 'We're ready for the Schlesinger era.'"

Although he and his wife of 29 years, Paula, were happy in Marlboro, they knew it was time to move on. During the course of the previous year, three congregants at his temple, all of whom were relatively young, had contracted serious illnesses. It made the couple realize that "time was short," he said, and their place was close to family.

"While everyone in my family is in relatively good health, it can't last forever," said Schlesinger, 51. Both his family and his wife's family reside in California — his mostly in Los Angeles, hers entirely in the Bay Area. His parents and one of his brothers live in the greater L.A. area. His other brother resides in Sacramento.

Also, two of the Schlesingers' three grown children reside in the Los Angeles vicinity.

"It was just time to reconnect with my California side," he said.

Originally from Southern California, Schlesinger is a Stanford graduate who taught religious school at the nearby Temple Beth Jacob in Redwood City before graduating. In fact, he met Paula — an industrial psychologist looking for work — at the Conservative congregation. She was teaching the religious school class across the hall from him.

A German major who spent time in the country as a foreign-exchange student during high school, Schlesinger did not always plan on becoming a rabbi. During the end of his junior year he was planning on entering law school.

"I had taken the LSAT and had even filled out and turned in the applications," he said.

Then during the summer following his junior year, Schlesinger worked at the kibbutz Kfar Massaryk near Haifa. Between this experience connecting with Israel, his Conservative upbringing and his experience teaching at Beth Jacob, "Something just clicked," he said. "I dropped everything and pursued the course of rabbinical school."

He and Paula married during his first year at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, where he was ordained in 1977.

His first job was as an associate rabbi with a congregation of close to 1000 in Los Angeles; the next, as a rabbi at a large congregation in Anaheim. Then came the move to New Jersey, to a congregation of 950.

But despite his West Coast background, Schlesinger has so far found his return to be quite an adjustment. A fairly traditional Jew, he has "had to keep an open mind" about California synagogue practices, especially because it is Northern California.

"The East Coast is much more conservative," he explained. "Here it's much less formal. They're more interested in spirituality, in experimenting and recognizing diversity in the world."

This has not been the only adjustment.

Beth Ami, with 300 member families, is by far the smallest congregation he has ever served. The next-smallest had 750.

This dramatic decrease was completely intentional.

"After 24 years serving mega-congregations, I look forward to serving a smaller congregation where there's a greater opportunity for me to get to know everyone."

He has spent the past 17 days at Beth Ami trying to do just that, meeting "as many people as I can and learning the personal journey and story that each carries with them."

Another way he plans to get to know his congregants is by interacting with their children. An avid guitarist, harpist and pianist — who owns all three instruments — he will be found with his congregation's preschoolers every Friday morning when school is in session, strumming his guitar and singing with them a variety of Jewish music in Yiddish, English and Hebrew.

"It's a way of giving them a connection to their rabbi so I don't just seem like a distant character on the bimah," he said. "To see their rabbi as someone who will sit on the floor with them, who knows their name, who can give them a hug — it will have tremendous long-range effects on their entire lives and how they relate to Judaism."

And, added Schlesinger, "how they relate to rabbis."