It was not always easy for Inna Serebro-Litvak as she sought to fulfill her dream of getting a Jewish education in her hometown of St. Petersburg, Russia. But some 40 years later, she is what she long aspired to be — a rabbi and a cantor.
On July 1, she became the religious leader at Temple Shalom Roxbury Reform in Succasunna. This new appointment takes place just a year after a creative experiment in clergy-sharing between that congregation and Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, where she was serving as cantor, had a tragic interruption.
Looking back at her childhood in Russia, Serebro-Litvak said, “We had a tough time expressing ourselves as Jews there. After high school there was no way I could apply to a Jewish school. There was only one school in the city where it was known that the Jews would be accepted, so it was tough because you had to state your nationality — and Jewish was a nationality.”
To make matters worse, those carrying a passport identifying the holder as a Jew, as she did, had further limits regarding the schools they could attend and the jobs they could hold.
It became clear that she would have to pursue her goals outside her birth country.
Singing, and ultimately becoming a cantor, was always a focus of her aspirations. After moving with her family to Israel in 1990, she began studies at Tel Aviv University’s Buchmann-Mehta School of Music. In Israel, she performed numerous concerts throughout the country, had a leading role in the Yiddish play “A Hosn in Shtetl,” and sang in the Tel Aviv Philharmonic Choir.
But in Israel it was not possible to receive training for the cantorate in a Reform or Conservative school, so after graduating from the music academy in 1997, she and her family moved to Brooklyn. Relatives helped her rent an apartment and find a job teaching Hebrew at a synagogue school in New York.
Her next step was to attend the Miller Cantorial School at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and she graduated in 2002. While in New York, she performed at concerts in area synagogues and traveled to Chicago to lead High Holiday services with Cantor Alberto Mizrahi at Anshe Emet Synagogue.
From July 2002 through June 2005, Serebro-Litvak was cantor at Temple B’nai Or in Morristown, then went on to hold that position at Beth Am for 12 years, serving with Rabbi Steven Mills. During that time, in May 2016, she received rabbinic ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion, a pluralistic school based in Yonkers, N.Y.
Just about a year ago, Serebro-Litvak was poised to be a key player in a unique clergy-sharing experiment with Temple Shalom, conceived of by Mills, a leading consultant for the Reform movement. He began implementing the streamlining arrangement after Rabbi David Levy decided to leave Temple Shalom to become New Jersey regional director of the American Jewish Committee. The two synagogues are about 20 miles apart.
Mills and Serebro-Litvak were set to begin their dual clergy roles, when just a day after the July 1 launch, Mills died suddenly at age 57.
“It was tremendous trauma, especially at Beth Am, and the congregation is recovering still. The family there still hasn’t recovered,” Serebro-Litvak told NJJN.
An attempt was made to continue the new venture, with Mills’ widow, Rabbi Estelle Gottman-Mills, set to fill her husband’s role.
At the time Serebro-Litvak said, “My job will change dramatically. Having worked for 12 years as cantor at Beth Am, now I am assuming a full-time position as a rabbi with additional responsibilities as a cantor” for the two congregations.
In November, however, it was decided to dissolve the plan, and Serebro-Litvak’s clerical leadership will be at Temple Shalom alone.
Of course, because of the experience of the past year, she said, “it doesn’t feel like I am beginning a new job.”
During that time, she has been “doing everything at Temple Shalom.” Among her activities, she said, “I have been involved in the interfaith clergy council, and have performed interfaith services with them.”
As the sole religious leader, Serebro-Litvak — who lives in Randolph with her husband, Anatoly Litvak, and their two young daughters, Emily and Abigail — said she expects to divide her responsibilities 50-50 between rabbinical and cantorial functions for the 250 families in her congregation.
She plans to perform “all the rabbinical stuff — the teaching, the classes, the pastoral care, overseeing various organizations within the temple and the larger Jewish community in the area.”
“I will be teaching the bar and bat mitzvah students,” she said, along with “teaching religious music, leading the choir, and musically leading most of the services.”
An official installation will be held Oct. 6.
Beth Am has a new religious leader as well. Gottman-Mills has moved on to a synagogue in Maryland, and Rabbi Andrew Sklarz, formerly of Greenwich Reform Synagogue in Connecticut, assumed the pulpit on July 1.
The experiment of joint clergy for the two synagogues may be over, said Serebro-Litvak, but she expects friendly cooperation to continue. “We may sometimes do programs together, and we hope we will come together so something will come out of this relationship.”