As they have for many years, Rabbi Steven Mills and his wife, Rabbi Estelle Gottman-Mills, will be spending the High Holy Days apart from one another.
Mills, who for a number of years has conducted Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur services for a congregation in Michigan, will be in the pulpit of Temple Beth Am, the Reform congregation in Parsippany where he took up leadership in July.
Gottman-Mills, meanwhile, will fly back to Cleveland, the couple’s previous home city, to lead services at Congregation Kol Chadash, which she helped establish, and where she still conducts Friday evening Shabbat services every other week.
Being part of a two-rabbi family has its challenges, Mills acknowledged, “but when you find the right person, you make it work.”
Home now is in Mountain Lakes. At Beth Am, Mills took over from interim leader Rabbi Howard Kosovske, and will be working with Cantor Inna Serebro-Litvak.
It is his first full-time pulpit in many years. For the past 12 years, he worked with the Union for Reform Judaism, serving most recently as rabbinic director of its Central Congregational Network. In that role, he addressed lay-clergy relations and professional placement. He was URJ’s representative on the Joint Commission on Rabbinical Placement, which oversees pulpit appointments, and served as codirector of the North American Commission on Rabbinic-Congregational Relations.
Before going to work for the URJ, he served as a pulpit rabbi for 10 years, working with congregations in Iowa, Missouri, and New Mexico.
Mills’s path to the pulpit, by his own description, was “circuitous.” He grew up in Cleveland, attending Temple Emanu-El and later serving as a confirmation teacher there. As a teenager, he served as a congressional page, and became interested in public policy.
“Going into the rabbinate and doing law were both very much on my mind,” he recalled.
He earned a BA at the University of Miami and then returned to Ohio and got his law degree from Cleveland State University. He got involved again with Temple Emanu-El. In his late 20s, he decided to go to rabbinical school. He was ordained in 1993 by Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Cincinnati.
“I was blessed in that choice,” he said. “That’s where I met my wife,” who, though younger, was one year ahead in her studies.
Had he seen the future, Mills said, he might have taken a more direct path to the rabbinate. But “blessed with hindsight,” he believes becoming a lawyer and studying public policy and administration all added to what he brings to his pastoral role.
While he and his wife see things in much the same way, he said, they have pursued different paths. “We both strive to have a deep and meaningful impact,” he said, “but Estelle’s focus has been on educational development, and mine has been more on the pastoral and programmatic side.”
In addition to the more predictable rabbinic skills, Mills has another very different interest: He is a cartoonist. Three times he was won the Noah Bee Award for Excellence in Editorial Cartooning from the American Jewish Press Association, and his children’s book, Rafi’s Search for the Torah Munching Monster, which he wrote and illustrated, has been published by Torah Aura Productions.
What he lacks, he admits, is athletic prowess — a quality that both his daughters have in abundance. Noa is a soccer player, and Sivan is a top college diver who considered trying out for the Olympics. Noa, 15, will attend the local high school, while Sivan, 19, is at the University of Pennsylvania; his son Rafi, 21, attends Lehigh University.
In Parsippany, Mills said, he looks forward to being able “to go deeper with one community, to have a chance to get to know his congregants and what makes them tick.”
He believes synagogues can attract and retain members by ensuring that people feel “embraced and engaged by their community.” That takes partnership between professional and lay leaders, and in his two months at Beth Am, he said, he has already witnessed an impressive level of dedication.
“I feel very blessed,” he said.