When Rabbi Ellie Miller became religious leader of Parsippany’s Temple Beth Am on July 1, she knew it was a good match.
“I was a good fit for this congregation,” Rabbi Miller, who sings and plays guitar, said. “They were looking for someone who could be both a rabbi and do music. It’s a unique skill set.”
An alumna of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where she was ordained, she earned master’s degrees in both Hebrew literature and religious education. She is a Rabbis Without Borders fellow and a past president of the Morris Area Interfaith Clergy Council.
The daughter of a rabbi – Rabbi Bennett Miller, now rabbi emeritus, led Anshe Emeth Memorial Temple in New Brunswick for 44 years – Beth Am’s new rabbi grew up “seeing all the different things a rabbi can do, the breadth of possibility.” Many of those things interested her, from teaching to social action, from working with kids with special needs to visiting hospitals and using music to enrich a religious service.
She began her rabbinic career at “a wonderful congregation,” Temple Sharey Tefilo-Israel, the Reform congregation in South Orange. “I grew the position as long as I could,” she said; she was an associate rabbi there for 16 years. “But then it was time for me to move on.”
After a short stint at another synagogue, she formed a community “for people who want to be connected to the Jewish community but not in a synagogue setting.” That community, which she still serves, is MAKOMnj.
Described on its website as “an independent Jewish community that offers] positive, meaningful Jewish and Jew-ish experiences that help everyone feel connected and find meaning in their own way,” the community was founded three years ago.
“I had been in the congregational world for 19 years,” Rabbi Miller said. “I found myself at a crossroads. I’ve seen a lot of people leave congregations, but they still had a hunger to be connected to the Jewish community. I wanted to offer something different for people.” The rabbi will split her time between MAKOMnj and Temple Beth Am, giving each 20 hours a week.
The MAKOMnj website also speaks of the group as a “joyful” Jewish community – and joy is what Rabbi Miller hopes to bring to Beth Am. Joy is an important component of synagogue life, she said, and she hopes to create it, whether injecting music into congregational activities or creating innovative ways for people to participate.
She will “offer connection points to Judaism in multiple ways,” Rabbi Miller said. “I feel that in this day and age, if we offer only one access point, people won’t take it. But if we offer multiple access points and give them more doors to walk through, there’s a better chance they’ll take one.” Her hope, she said, is to meet each person where they are on their Jewish journey, and help them connect and find meaning in their own way.
Clearly, like other religious leaders, Beth Am’s new rabbi faces the challenge of accomplishing these goals at a time when there’s limited opportunity to meet people in person. “We meet through a square,” she said. Still, while covid has limited personal interactions, “I’ve found the community warm and welcoming.” Another challenge lies in “inspiring people to come in.” Now that many have become comfortable viewing services from the comfort of their living room couch, she said, it will take some work to bring them back in person.
She noted that the congregation is implementing a program called Temple Beth Am 2.0, “looking to the future, and who they want to be in the future.” She pointed out that “the Judaism of our parents and grandparents is not the Judaism of our children and grandchildren.” Work on the project began before she arrived at the congregation, she said, crediting “creative, thoughtful people,” for beginning it.
Rabbi Miller, who lives in Morristown with her three children – 18-year-old Sam and 14-year-old twins Meg and Jack – grew up in New Jersey, in the New Brunswick area. If music is one of her passions, she said, another one is baking, she said. Her son Jack serves as the clean-up crew when she’s done.
“I’m excited about my new position, and honored to have been chosen,” Rabbi Miller said. “Beth Am has been around for a long time and has a lovely reputation.”