Ilana Mills’ rabbinic ordination from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on May 13 was an auspicious occasion for her and her family, but it also marked an historic moment for the Jewish people. As Mills received smicha, she joined her older sisters Mari Chernow and Jordana Chernow-Reader in the Reform rabbinate. The Chernow women are currently the only set of three sisters who are Reform rabbis, and are likely the only three sisters who have ever all been rabbis of any denomination.
The sisters were raised by their parents, Eli Chernow, a retired Superior Court Judge, and Arlene Chernow, in Sherman Oaks, California. Reform Judaism has always been an integral part of their family life and individual identities. “Our mom has been working for the Union for Reform Judaism for 27 years in outreach and other areas of membership to build healthy and inclusive communities,” Mari noted. Their father serves on the URJ’s national board.
Mari, 40, is the eldest sister. She was ordained by HUC-JIR in 2003, and is the senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix, Arizona, where she lives with her partner. Jordana, 35, was ordained in 2010 and is director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, California. She and her husband are the parents of a 2-year-old son. Ilana, 32 and newly minted as a rabbi, will be moving to Scottsdale, Arizona with her husband and their 2- and 4-year-old boys to take an assistant rabbi position at Temple Solel in nearby Paradise Valley.
And for the record, the sisters know of no rabbinic legacy in their family. They scored a hat trick in a single generation, without there having been any rabbis in prior ones.
The Times of Israel recently managed to get all three women together on the phone for a conversation about what it means to them to be a groundbreaking rabbinic sister act.
How is it that all three of you decided to become rabbis?
Mari: It was very much an individual path for each of us. But what I will say that it did feel like a very comfortable, natural step for all of us. The fact that our family was so deeply involved in Jewish living and the Jewish community, and all our friends were from our synagogue and the URJ and other places had a very strong influence. I don’t think anybody felt that we had to go into this field, or that it was obvious that this was the way we were going to go, but at the same time, it felt very natural, easy, organic, and comfortable.
Jordana: I would totally agree with that. I looked into other things… but it just wasn’t the right fit for me. It wasn’t family pressure, but it was just a big part of our family life, and it was a really comfortable profession for us to pick.
It was just so natural because of who we are and how we were raised
Ilana: I agree completely with my sisters. It was a very individual choice and very comfortable. I think for me, the fact that both of my sisters were in rabbinical school made me shy away from it for a bit. I wanted to make sure I was doing it for the individual choice and I wasn’t doing it because I was being pressured to — and I was never pressured. My time working for URJ was about looking at Masters programs and really recognizing that rabbinical school was the right choice for me. It was just so natural because of who we are and how we were raised.
Do you recall there ever being any expectation from your parents that any of you would become rabbis?
Mari: Not to my memory. There were always a lot of rabbis hanging out at the house… There were rabbis coming through for holiday celebrations or committee meetings, or whatever. Our mom, in her role, worked with a lot of the rabbinic students at HUC. The flow of becoming a rabbi felt very natural. I can’t remember any specific hint of, “Wouldn’t it be great if you would become a rabbi?” or anything like that.
Did any of you consider studying at a rabbinical school other than HUC?
Ilana: I looked into the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College a little bit, just to kind of figure things out, to make sure HUC was the right choice for me. And it became clear after looking at the program that HUC was the right choice for me.
Mari: I think it was pretty clear for me [that I would go to HUC] from the beginning,
Jordana: I wasn’t really interested [in the other schools]… None of the other options would have been a good fit for me.
Did any of you have other professions before entering rabbinical school?
Mari: I was a teacher in an early childhood education program and a religious school, and I did Jewish youth work.
Jordana: I got a Masters degree from the University of Edinburgh in Scotland. That was in policy development, with a focus on international environmental policy. I didn’t so much work in the field, but I lived in Scotland for three years… I’d met my husband by that point. I was trying to figure out whether I wanted to do the rabbinate or not, and it was really not my kind of Jewish community in Scotland, so we wanted to come back here to see whether that was the path I wanted to take or not — and it was.
Ilana: I worked for the Religious Action Center for a year and then I worked for the URJ for three years as a regional director of youth and informal education and for NFTY. For one year, I lived in Phoenix and I worked at Temple Chai in the religious school.
What is the focus of your rabbinate? What do you aspire to achieve as a rabbi?
Ilana: I’ve only been a rabbi for two weeks, so it’s a little hard for me to say what I want to focus on. I would say I’m planning on really focusing on learning how to be a rabbi and everything it entails. I have my Masters in Jewish Education, so I am excited to work with education, and I’m really excited to really work on community organizing. I will be the second rabbi at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley. It’s an assistant rabbi position, so it’s services and holidays and lifecycle events and teaching and everything else a rabbi does. I will also be focusing on education, but it’s an assistant rabbi position.
Jordana: I am the director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, so I have a rabbinic educator position. I was ordained in 2010 but I did get an education degree after, so I have only been here for a year and my rabbinate is still taking shape. I’m definitely focusing on the education side this year, but I do have a diverse pulpit — lifecycle events, services, holidays, etc. For me, this year has really been focused on creating family education opportunities — really bringing some excitement and enthusiasm into the learning opportunities at the congregation. One of my personal passions is social justice and social action, so that has been woven into some of the programming this year. I’ve brought in the environmental piece in a subtle way, as well.
Being very present for one another in difficult times and times of transition is very important to me
Mari: I’ve just finished my 9th year as a rabbi, and my rabbinate has transformed several times even in those years. I was initially drawn to Temple Chai for many reasons, one of which was our Shalom Center for Healing. We take the concept of a caring community and bikkur cholim very seriously. Being very present for one another in difficult times and times of transition is very important to me. Since then, I’ve developed a deep passion for passionate prayer, serious adult Jewish learning and a lot of other things. Right now I’m focused on creating a dynamic, vibrant, thriving Jewish community. I’m proud to lead a wonderful team of rabbis and other Jewish professionals in this endeavor.
Have you had rabbinic role models, especially female ones, in your lives?
Jordana: I feel like I’m very blessed because I have many rabbinic mentors in my life. For me it’s really a mix of some people I’ve grown up with, people who I consider my rabbis, some people I’ve worked with throughout my time in HUC, and some people I’ve met since being in the field. But one thing I really like about the rabbinic field is that it’s a field where people mentor each other, help each other and try to work together.
It was certainly never a question in our lives about whether a woman could be a rabbi
Mari: There are many mentors and teachers and wonderful people who have invested time and energy and love into us. There were a ton of rabbis through our involvement in what was Camp Swig and is now Camp Newman. There were teachers like Rabbi Leah Kroll back at Stephen S. Wise Temple and Dr. Tamara Eskenazi at HUC. We’ve had both men and women mentors. It was certainly never a question in our lives about whether a woman could be a rabbi. We were lucky enough to have that model present for us all the time. Both male and female rabbis have been very nurturing, supportive and inspiring for me.
Ilana: There have been a number of rabbis that I feel very blessed that they have taken a lot of time to mentor and help me to take this path and go on this journey. I’m very grateful to have them. For me also, gender was never a question, and I am grateful for both male and female role models.
Have you experienced challenges specifically because you are women rabbis?
Mari: In many ways, no. The women who came before us really paved the path. They did a lot of hard work. I mean that both in terms of the women who were ordained starting 40 years ago, and also the women who are here locally in Arizona. They faced some challenges so that I didn’t have to face them. I see a little bit of challenge sometimes in being the senior rabbi. Some people want a strong male voice as the leadership of their synagogue. I think we have come a very long way in the 40 years since women have been in the rabbinate. But we’ve had a few transitions here at Temple Chai, a few rabbis coming and going. I get asked quite a lot if I am going to hire a man. People really want to make sure there’s going to be a male voice. That’s fine. I understand it and I think that it’s important, but I think maybe for some people, that’s a subtle suggestion that they are uncomfortable with women at the helm.
It can definitely be challenging to be a rabbi and a mom and be there for the congregation in the way I want to be there, and also to be there for my family in the way I want to be
Jordana: A challenge I face is that I am a working mom. It can definitely be challenging to be a rabbi and a mom and be there for the congregation in the way I want to be there, and also to be there for my family in the way I want to be. But I think that’s not a problem unique to the rabbinate. I think that’s a problem that many working moms face… I really think it really depends on the rabbi and the congregation. It’s hard to make generalizations, but I do think that some women like me choose to go into other aspects of the rabbinate, not necessarily a traditional assistant rabbi role, like being on the education side, or going to Hillel or chaplaincy. I think that’s kind of one plus of having women in the rabbinate. They’re kind of helping to carve some paths that are not the “traditional” paths that rabbis take.
Mari: I have had friends and colleagues tell me that women rabbis who are in congregations and then have children get a feeling of a little sibling rivalry coming from the community. Like, a “Will you be able to love them and us?” kind of thing.
Ilana: This is something that we talked a lot about at school, and my husband and I talked a lot about in terms of the type of job I wanted to seek. I’ve talked to a number of rabbis who are moms and they have talked about the challenges. There are definitely a lot of times that you miss moments at your home, but a lot of rabbi moms have also painted a picture for me that it is possible to do both. You have to find the right balance for you. But I do think it’s a big challenge. In our family, my husband is going to take a job with more normal hours so he can be home more with the kids.
Do you think the best way to be taken seriously as a Jewish professional is to become a rabbi?
Mari: I would say that was not so much a personal motivation, but I would agree that there is a little bit of rabbi bias out there. If you have smicha, you have a certain status or sort of respect that people accord you — sometimes inappropriately. There are phenomenal educators and other Jewish professionals who might have more doors opened for them if they were rabbis. That’s unfortunate and I hope we see a shift in coming years.
Ilana: At one point someone said to me, “If you want to work in the Jewish field, you should be a rabbi.” I’m not out there yet, so I don’t know. I think there are phenomenal Jewish professionals everywhere. When I got that advice I kind of didn’t believe it. I don’t think that was part of why I went to rabbinical, but I remember hearing that advice and finding it jarring.
Mari: One of the fixes comes from the rabbis ourselves. I really look to our educator and early childhood director for expertise I don’t have. There are people who are thinking about synagogue management, development and community building in very serious ways. It’s easy to assume that we, as rabbis, know everything there is to know about Jewish life and organizational leadership, but we do much better when we share the leadership with other professionals.
Jordana: It’s in the Jewish community’s interest to value people for the skills that they have.
What are the benefits of having your sisters as fellow rabbis?
To have someone who understands me as a person and also can relate to me as a professional and love both sides of me is something I’m really looking forward to
Ilana: I’m planning on learning from my sisters, and hopefully we will support one another and share stories. I understand that there are just certain things about being a rabbi that are unique and different, and to have someone who understands me as a person and also can relate to me as a professional and love both sides of me is something I’m really looking forward to. I can’t put words to how special and important it will be to me.
Mari: I think it’s something very special. We can share and support each other. My sisters gave me a nice gift — maybe unexpectedly — early on in my rabbinate when they were in school. They would call me up and ask how to do a baby naming and how to do a wedding. I was very green, but I got the chance to talk through my systems and practices. It helped boost my confidence. We could share that and grow together. Being first in line, that’s been a great thing, and we will continue to mutually support each other.
Jordana: If I’m working on a sermon or a lesson plan, or if an issue or a problem comes up, I certainly call my sisters and talk it through with them… I think we laugh a lot. I think we really have fun with what we do and with each other. I think that is a wonderful combination. We are very close, and I really love that we personally and also professionally have formed this friendship whereby we help and support each other, and work together. I feel very blessed that my sisters have gone into this profession along with me.