Ellie Shemtov had the first inkling she might wish to become a rabbi while on a business trip to Australia in 2003.
Nearly 10,000 miles from her home in Washington, DC, she reconnected with the legacy of her grandfather, who was part of a Jewish unit from Palestine that fought alongside Australian and New Zealand forces during World War I’s brutal Gallipoli campaign.
“After my visit to Australia, which lasted a month, I decided it was time for a second career,” said Rabbi Shemtov, who until then served as head of the Moving Image Processing Unit at the Library of Congress.
This awakening to her past was Shemtov’s first step along a career path to her current posting as the new religious leader of Congregation Kol Am in Freehold. She succeeds Rabbi Brooks R. Susman, who retired on July 31. After 13 years in the Kol Am pulpit, he is now rabbi emeritus.
“My great-grandfather had been an early Zionist in Russia, and he took his family to Palestine when my grandfather was still a young boy,” Shemtov told NJJN in a phone interview.
During World War II, her father, then living in the United States, had a choice of whether to join the British or U.S. Army.
“He chose the United States, and, following the war, he earned an engineering degree from Rutgers University, thanks to the GI Bill of Rights. Both I and my brother, a physician in Cherry Hill, were born in America.”
Shemtov’s education began at the Hillel Academy Jewish Day School in Perth Amboy and progressed to a master’s degree in library science. Throughout a long career in that field, she maintained her interest in Jewish life and faith.
“During my 23 years in Washington, I was a member of Agudas Achim Congregation in Alexandria, Va. I was and continue to be a passionate Torah reader. Rabbi Jack Moline and Cantor Ramon Tasat greatly influenced me and encouraged me to reach my full potential,” she said.
Initially, she studied to be a cantor, but then went on to complete rabbinic training. In 2014, she was ordained by the pluralistic Academy for Jewish Religion in Riverdale, NY.
“What I like about Congregation Kol Am is that it began as a havura. It’s a real grassroots congregation,” said Shemtov. “And now it even has a Garden of Feedin’, which is a wonderful example of community outreach.”
The garden, planted this spring, grows vegetables to be donated to local soup kitchens and food pantries.
Describing the congregation as “progressive Reform,” Shemtov said, “My first goal is to learn about and understand the members and to work with them to grow spiritually.”
Currently living in the Bronx, Shemtov said she is seeking a residence in the Freehold area. For the time being, however, she will be a commuter, as she was at her last job as rabbi/education director for Temple Emanu-El in Long Beach, NY.
Wherever she settles, she intends to bring along two elements of her professional past: a website called Ellie’s Torah Trope Tutor (ellietorah.com), which is designed to help people learn how to chant from the Torah, and an ongoing effort to help victims of drug abuse and alcoholism.
“I did my rabbinic thesis on a Los Angeles facility called Beit T’shuva, where the regimen blends 12-step precepts with Jewish spirituality,” she said. “Judaic texts include a lot of healing messages. Alcohol figures prominently in a number of Bible stories — Noah and Lot, for example.”
She cited a quote attributed to Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav, noting its similarity to the 12-step principle of living life one day at a time: “Man’s world consists only of the present. Whatever you can do to serve God, do immediately and determinedly without delay.”