Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick continues Beth Am’s legacy of justice

Dan Aznoff, Special to the Jewish Sound

Despite the fact that she grew up 3,000 miles away from Seattle and speaks with an East Coast accent, Rabbi Ruth Zlotnick believes she will be coming home in August when she takes her place on the bima as the new senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am.

Raised in a suburb of New York City, the new spiritual leader for the Reform congregation in North Seattle was attracted to the synagogue because of its rich history of tikkun olam.

“There is not a major difference between the person I am when I conduct services and the wife and mother I try to be at home,” Zlotnick explained. “Given the opportunity to learn about the role Beth Am has played in the social issues of our time, I knew immediately that this was the type of congregation that I would want to join, even if I was not the rabbi.”

Early in her career, Zlotnick quickly made Relational Judaism the focus of her rabbinical responsibilities. She urged members at the Central Synagogue in New York, the large Reform congregation where she served as director of lifelong learning in the early 2000s, to become aware of the need for social change and joined forces with groups dedicated to positive changes throughout the urban community. She was associate director of programs at Synagogue 2000 (now Synagogue 3000) before that.

Zlotnick continued to lead by example when she moved across the river to serve as senior rabbi at Temple Beth Or in Washington Township, N.J. in 2008. She played an active role in the secular community during her six years at the small suburban synagogue by serving on the Rabbinic Council of Garden State Equality and the Gun Violence Prevention Advocacy of New Jersey.

“Jewish learning happens at all levels from our earliest days until the last days of our lives,” she said. “Judaism helps us connect as a community. It allows us to look beyond our individual needs to see the bigger picture, both as a religion and as a responsible member of society.”

Zlotnick said that given her experience, Beth Am and its 875 member households feels like the right fit. Beth Am president Bryan Rutberg could not agree more. He said several outstanding candidates submitted applications for the senior rabbi post when opened last year, but Zlotnick’s words jumped off the page.

“The depth of her thinking, the clarity of her purpose, and the nuances of her personality put her at the top tier of the 42 applications we received,” Rutberg said. “There was just something grounded in the way she wrote and the passion she evoked during the interview process. She makes it easy to share your feelings, knowing she understands exactly what you’re trying to say.”

According to Rutberg, the selection committee told the board they were especially impressed with how the rabbi was able to weave words from the Torah and Talmud into her philosophy for Reform Judaism in today’s society.

“Her first concerns are with the spiritual health of the community. That is the priority we wanted to find in our next rabbi,” said Rutberg. “She captivated us with her rachmones [sympathy]. We all had the feeling she understood our community. She wanted to be part of the solution.”

Before she took her place with the clergy in uptown New York, Zlotnick earned her bachelor’s degree in religious studies from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn. and a master’s in the philosophy of religion from Yale. She received ordination from the Hebrew Union College—Institute of Jewish Religion in New York in 2001.

Zlotnick comes to Seattle with her husband, Richard Cicale, and daughter Suzannah. She predicted that the family cat, Norton, will have the most difficult transition to the West Coast. Zlotnick described Norton as “an old City Cat who does not like changes to his routine.”

As for herself, Rabbi Zlotnick is looking forward to the next chapter of her life and hopes she will be will be remembered in years to come for maintaining the path toward social justice and equality that was the foundation of the Beth Am congregation when it was established almost 60 years ago.

“The size and the intellectual environment [of the congregation at Beth Am] make this move feel like one we have been destined to make,” she said. “The congregation and the [Seattle] community reflect the values that we hold as sacred in our own lives.

“Besides,” she said with a grin, “I am addicted to coffee. And I’ve heard there are more than a few places to get a good cup of coffee in the Northwest.”