What started as a unique agreement between two Morris County synagogues to share two rabbis was interrupted by the sudden death of Rabbi Steven Mills of Temple Beth Am, Parsippany, on July 2.
Mills and his colleague, Rabbi Inna Serebro-Litvak, were to have become spiritual leaders at Temple Shalom in Succasunna, in addition to serving at Beth Am, their own congregation.
Within a day after Mills’ July 5 funeral, leaders of the two congregations began discussing how to carry out the plan that the late rabbi was instrumental in drafting.
“We are determined to make this work as a legacy of Rabbi Mills,” said Andrew Mensch, executive vice president of Temple Shalom.
“We don’t have any firm plans yet but we are moving forward one step at a time.”
In addition to face-to-face meetings, there has been “constant communication” by email and phone between members of the two synagogue boards and Serebro-Litvak, he said.
“We are all in this together working hand in hand,” Mensch told NJJN. “We want to keep this collaboration going in memory of Rabbi Mills.”
Board leaders have also been consulting with the Union for Reform Judaism for assistance in replacing Mills. “They have protocols for how to proceed after the passing of a rabbi,” he said. As of press time, no official search had begun.
Although the High Holy Days are just more than two months away, the synagogues are not in a rush to find a permanent rabbi before Rosh HaShanah begins on the evening of Sept. 20. “We want the right rabbi. We don’t want to have a rabbi just to have a rabbi,” said Mensch. “Speed is not necessarily the goal here.”
The idea for deploying Mills and Serebro-Litvak to both synagogues began earlier this year, when Rabbi David Levy left his pulpit at Temple Shalom to become NJ regional director of the American Jewish Committee.
Mills, who had been Beth Am’s rabbi for three years, was to have continued his collaboration with Serebro-Litvak, who served as its cantor for 12 years. In May 2016, Serebro-Litvak received rabbinic ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion, a pluralistic school based in Yonkers, N.Y. Part of the impetus for the collaboration was to ensure that she would stay put.
“Our thought was that Rabbi Serebro-Litvak would be looking for another synagogue where she could become a rabbi,” said Greg Goldstein of Pine Brook, president of the Beth Am congregation. “The opportunity to keep her and provide her with broader responsibilities was a wonderful opportunity for us.”
With her new title as rabbi, “my job will change dramatically,” said Serebro-Litvak. “Up until now I worked at Temple Beth Am for 12 years as a cantor. Now I am assuming a full-time position as a rabbi with additional responsibilities as a cantor.”
One of her assignments will be training young people for their bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies.
Before Mills died, Serebro-Litvak told NJJN “this is an exciting opportunity for me personally. I will continue my connection with Temple Beth Am, which I can now call my second home, and at the same time build new relationships among the community of Temple Shalom.”
Just a week before his death, Mills called the new arrangement “a bold, flexible, creative way of addressing in our area somewhat shrinking numbers of Jews in Morris County and beyond.”
Board members of the two synagogues are hoping that the rabbinical partnership will spur an increase in the 190 families who belong to Beth Am and the 280 families at Temple Shalom.
“The synergy between the two congregations was phenomenal,” said Robin Katchen of Randolph, president of Temple Shalom. “Together we can be stronger for the Jewish community in Morris County. We can combine our efforts for better social action.”
Goldstein noted the compatibility of both congregations. “Our thought is that we will be able to leverage the strengths of both synagogues and bring more people in. The hope is that we will be able to provide strong programming and attract more people throughout Morris County,” he said.
“It is partially an economy of scale,” explained Mensch. “It is cost-saving for both of us, but more than that, it helps to unite Morris County’s Reform Jewish community. But it will not be a merger at all. It will be two separate temples with separate finances, separate bank accounts, and separate boards. The only thing we are economizing on is our rabbis.”
For most weekly services, the intention is that Serebro-Litvak and Mills’ replacement will officiate at separate locations. On the High Holy Days, morning services will be held in one synagogue, afternoon services at the other.
Religious schools and communal groups, such as sisterhoods and men’s clubs, will remain separate entities at both synagogues, although in some instances they will combine forces for special activities and social action programs.
“I hope that a much closer interaction between the members will help us build a tighter community,” said Serebro-Litvak.