Rabbi Beth Schwartz welcomed to Temple Israel

lgierer@ledger-enquirer.comSeptember 8, 2012 

When a Community Coalition on Family Violence was formed in Knoxville, Tenn., Rabbi Beth Schwartz felt something was missing.

"There needed to be a spiritual component," she said.

So she and a few other religious leaders founded the Clergy Task Force to work with the coalition.

Because of her efforts in preventing family violence in the city, she was honored by the Knoxville Police Department at a party honoring her as she made ready to depart for her new job in Columbus.

Schwartz, the new rabbi at Temple Israel, hopes to continue her work with family violence here.

"It is an important issue," she said.

Part of the task force's work dealt with teaching clergy how to deal with family violence issues and how to use scripture to talk about family relationships.

Schwartz said it is important for a victim of domestic abuse to know that people care about her and that God loves her unconditionally. She must be told, "God wants you to survive."

She said batterers are manipulative and controlling and congregations must show support for victims and hold batterers responsible. Batterers must know, Schwartz said, that "just standing up in church and saying they are sorry is not enough."

Family violence was far from the only cause in which Schwartz was involved in Knoxville. She was a key member of the mayor's task force on "Racial Disparity in School Discipline" and was a member of the Police Advisory and Review Board.

Schwartz, 61, arrived here July 1.

Her first week, she conducted the funeral service for Judge Aaron Cohn, an event that drew hundreds including many city leaders.

"It was intense," she said.

Schwartz, who was not scheduled to begin work for another week, just focused on serving the bereaved family.

Schwartz served as rabbi at Temple Beth El in Knoxville for 13 years. "It was just time for a parting of the ways," she said of her departure.

She did not want to be in a big city and Temple Israel's small congregation "fit the bill."

She said she talked to the people at the temple and "we really hit it off."

"Her warmth was the big thing that impressed the search committee," Temple Israel President Gary Stern said. "She is a joy to be around."

Schwartz has been married for 40 years to Larry Washington, a mental health therapist. They have two adult children, Leah Washington who lives in Maryland, and Daniel Washington who lives in North Carolina.

Schwartz, who grew up Philadelphia, Pa., never dreamed as a child of being as rabbi. "There were no women rabbis then," she said.

The first ordained woman rabbi was Sally Priesand in 1972.

Schwartz said that growing up she always had a strong Jewish identity but was not affiliated with any congregation.

"There were home observances. I had a sense of what it meant to be Jewish," she said.

As for a career, she was planning to study history and teach.

She has a bachelor's in history from Binghamton University and a master's of education in guidance counseling from George Mason University.

But she did not teach or counsel after college. She became a business systems analyst.

Her life changed when she and her husband moved to Virginia and joined a "very small, nurturing congregation."

"I began to grow spiritually there," she said.

After her daughter graduated from high school, Schwartz decided to walk away from the corporate life and go to rabbinical school. She enrolled at Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion.

Her first year of study was spent in Israel with her husband and son.

"It was a pretty big leap for me," she said. "Most of the other students were closer to my daughter's age."

Though she had plenty of support, she's sure some thought her crazy.

She was ordained in 1999. After making short stops in as Paducah, Ky. and Seminole, Okla., she landed in Knoxville.

Schwartz said women rabbis are not that rare anymore and has found that some men in crisis prefer talking to a woman. "They feel they can cry," she said.

Schwartz likes the diversity of being a congregational rabbi.

"The work is very fulfilling," she said.

And away from work, Schwartz said, she is always looking for a good game of Bridge.

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