Rabbi Steven Mills, spiritual leader, cartoonist, and puppeteer

Rabbi Steven Mills, spiritual leader, cartoonist, and puppeteer

Rabbi Steven Mills, religious leader of Temple Beth Am in Parsippany, died suddenly on July 2, the day after officially beginning a rabbi sharing partnership with Temple Shalom of Succasunna. He was 57 years old.

Mills was to have co-officiated a service with Beth Am’s other rabbi and cantor, Inna Serebro-Litvak, inaugurating a partnership between the two congregations (see “Two Reform congregations adopt rabbinical partnership” on page 4.)

While the two Reform houses of worship have not merged, they had agreed to jointly employ Mills and Serebro-Litvak to serve both of their congregations. The unique arrangement was forged 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.

A celebratory Shabbat service welcoming the new partnership was to have taken place at the Serebro-Litvak home in Randolph on July 7. Instead, it became a memorial service at Beth Am.

“Steve was an exceptional person,” Serebro-Litvak told NJJN. “We worked three years together and we were very close. He was very kind and patient and always saw the good in other people. He was never judgmental and always able to resolve conflicts in a peaceful manner.”

Mills’ death was unexpected, Serebro-Litvak said. “He wasn’t sick.”

The last time they saw each other was at Shabbat services at Beth Am on June 30, two days before Mills died.

“The two congregations are devastated,” said Serebro-Litvak. “We are now in a very peculiar situation. [Temple Shalom’s] members have to decide how they want to proceed.”

On July 5, a day after Mills’ funeral, members of the two boards met to consider how to implement the partnership, given that they were suddenly without a key figure in its formation.

“Our plan is to continue and not let this stop us because that is what Rabbi Mills would have wanted,” said Andrew Mensch, executive vice president of Temple Shalom. “It is his vision and we want it to be his legacy.”

Mills, a Mountain Lakes resident, had been Beth Am’s rabbi since 2014, 24 years after being ordained at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati. He started as an assistant rabbi at Congregation Albert in Albuquerque, N.M.

From 1995 to 2000 he served as associate rabbi and educator at Congregation Temple Israel in St. Louis, and later as spiritual leader of Temple B’nai Jeshurun in Des Moines, Iowa. 

His career shifted between service on the pulpit and work with the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ), the movement’s governing body, as rabbinic director of its Central Congregational Network and a long-time faculty member of Goldman Union Camp Institute in Indiana.

His expertise at URJ in “helping congregations address systemic issues,” as Mills put it, paved the way for the unique rabbi-sharing arrangement Beth Am and Temple Shalom had planned, he told NJJN two weeks before his death. He described the partnership as “a bold move” that he hoped would strengthen memberships in both synagogues. Temple Shalom has approximately 280 member families. Beth Am has 190.

Apart from being a rabbi, Mills was somewhat of a renaissance man. He held a law degree from the Cleveland-Marshall College of Law and a bachelor’s degree from Miami University in Ohio. He was an accomplished author and cartoonist, twice receiving the Noah Bee Award for Excellence in Editorial Cartooning from the American Jewish Press Association. He was also a puppeteer, employing that skill in his work with the children of his congregations.

“I will always remember him with his puppet, Schmueli,” said Amy Marcus of Montville, who became president of Beth Am’s congregation shortly before Mills’ death. “Schmueli was supposed to be a representation of him and he was so cute. He had the children mesmerized,” she told NJJN. 

“Rabbi Mills was a great man and had a great vision for what we are still planning to do,” said Mensch. “His death was a huge shock that is indescribable. He will be missed by both congregations. I am only sorry that the congregation at Temple Shalom did not get to meet him and see what a great man he was.”

Mills is survived by his wife, Rabbi Estelle Mills, who is the education director at Temple Israel in Ridgewood; their children, Rafi, Sivan, and Noa; his mother, Joyce Harris Mills of Lake Worth, Fla.; and his brother, David Mills of Tampa, Fla.

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