Rabbi Estelle Mills had no inkling she would be presiding over High Holy Day services this year. Yet that’s the role she accepted after her husband, Rabbi Steven Mills, died suddenly at the age of 57 on July 2. As she mourned, she took the helm of two Reform synagogues, Temple Beth Am in Parsippany and Temple Shalom of Succasunna.
“His death was unexpected, and I wanted to keep his legacy alive,” she told NJJN. “I needed to find fulltime work, and I needed a community that embraced me.”
Mills died one day after Beth Am began a clergy-sharing partnership with Temple Shalom, a one-of-a-kind arrangement he conceived and had just begun to implement.
The two congregations were to come together for the first time on July 7 for a Friday night service and barbecue in the backyard of Temple Shalom’s rabbi, Inna Serebro-Litvak, in Randolph (Serebro-Litvak was originally to serve with Steven as co-religious leaders of the two temples). Instead, it served as an impromptu memorial at Beth Am, as members of both congregations grieved alongside friends and family.
Now, four months later, his widow serves as an interim rabbi at both synagogues, sharing both pulpits with Serebro-Litvak, who doubles as their cantor. “It was a time of healing for me,” Mills said. “It was my husband’s idea to start the clergy-sharing,” and it brought her comfort, she said, to carry out his plan.
While the two houses of worship did not merge, they agreed to jointly employ Mills and Serebro-Litvak to preside at both of their congregations. Steven Mills began forging the arrangement earlier this year after Rabbi David Levy resigned his post at Temple Shalom to become regional director of the American Jewish Committee’s New Jersey office in June.
Two weeks before his death, Steven told NJJN the unique rabbi-sharing agreement was “a bold move” that he hoped would strengthen memberships in both synagogues. Temple Shalom has approximately 280 member families; Beth Am has 190.
“He had such an engaging personality,” said Estelle. “If anyone could have pulled this off it would have been him.”
After his death, the two congregations held emergency meetings to consider their options. “Because of their deep regard for my husband, both voted to keep the clergy-sharing going,” Mills said. They also decided to appoint her to a 10-month term as interim rabbi at both congregations. She said she will serve only until her contract expires in June.
“They needed to see me as a rabbi, not as a grieving widow,” she said. Because she’d been specially trained to serve as an interim rabbi, Mills was a natural choice, and by Rosh HaShanah her role was set.
Since then, Mills and Serebro-Litvak have split their time between the two temples, spending two-and-a-half days a week at each. They appear jointly at religious school sessions and conducted services at both temples on Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur.
Estelle Mills was ordained at Hebrew Union College, the Reform seminary in Cincinnati, in 1992. It was there that she met Steven.
After graduation, while Steven went to work at the Union for Reform Judaism, where he remained for 14 years, she became a pulpit rabbi at Congregation Kol Chadash in Chesterfield, Mo., and Congregation Kol Am in Cleveland. The couple had three children, Rafi, Sivan, and Noa.
Four years ago, Steven’s tenure at Beth Am began, and for most of that time, Estelle served as education director at Temple Israel in Ridgewood.
She was born Estelle Gottman in Yonkers, NY, and grew up in North Carolina. “Our family was very active in the synagogue and the Reform Jewish community in Greensboro,” she said. “It had a huge effect on my life.” So, too, did her first three years in public school at the outset of desegregation. In her earlier years in Durham, she was the only white child to ride a bus across town to an overwhelmingly black public school.
“It was very important to my parents that I attend public school and support the end of segregation,” she said. “At that point, I didn’t pick up on racism. But it did affect my wanting to become a rabbi and to do what’s right for everybody.”
Beyond her new duties on two pulpits and at two religious schools, Mills has a heavy agenda. She has conducted focus groups among the members of both congregations. So far, she likes what she’s seeing. The congregants “are feeling good about the places as warm and welcoming.”
Mills is also learning the preferences of both congregations regarding services. “Shalom likes more Hebrew than at Beth Am,” she said. She’s begun to document the respective practices so the individual traditions of the synagogues can be passed along to future rabbis after her term ends.
Despite her loss, Mills said, she is proud of her decision to perpetuate Steven’s legacy.
“This is something I can do in my husband’s memory, and I think he would have wanted me to do it.”