(Jewish News of Greater Phoenix) — When Ilana Mills was 16 years old she had an epiphany: “I want to be a rabbi.”
At first, she worried the only reason she wanted to follow that career path was because her two older sisters had talked about becoming rabbis. “I had to figure it out for myself and make sure I was doing it for all the right reasons,” she says.
So, Mills went to college, but didn’t take Hebrew, because “I wasn’t going to become a rabbi,” and became a religious-studies major at Franklin & Marshall College in Pennsylvania. “I fell in love with Jewish philosophy,” she says.
After Mills graduated, she didn’t apply for synagogue jobs because “I wasn’t going to become a rabbi.” Instead, she worked at the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism in Washington, D.C., and as a National Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY) regional adviser. “The world was telling me something and I just wasn’t ready to listen,” she says.
Meanwhile, her two sisters entered Hebrew Union College-Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR) and have since become rabbis. Her oldest sister, Mari Chernow, was ordained in 2003 and is now the senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix; her other sister, Jordana Chernow-Reader, was ordained in 2010 and is the director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, Calif.
It wasn’t until Mills had a discussion about God with a NFTY teenager whose friend had recently committed suicide that she realized that being a rabbi “is what I want to spend the rest of my life doing.”
Mills applied to HUC-JIR and started rabbinic school at age 26.
No one was surprised when Mills decided to become a rabbi, according to Mari. “She’s a natural. I think we saw it coming.”
Mills was ordained on May 13 at Temple Israel of Hollywood, making her the third Chernow sister to become a rabbi. The Chernows have made history by being the only family in the United States to have three female siblings become rabbis.
“This isn’t something that any of us set out to do,” Mills says. “What’s great about it is that each of us found this path because it was the right one for us. We just want to be the best rabbis we can be.”
Mills feels fortunate to have two siblings who are rabbis. “When I have a problem, I can call my sisters. They know me and they know this work better than anyone.”
Now 32 and a mother of two boys, ages 4 and 2, Mills will take her first pulpit as an ordained rabbi at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz. She starts on July 1.
Rabbi John Linder, senior rabbi of Temple Solel, says although there were a number of other fabulous candidates, “Ilana Mills rose to the top.”
“The things we value most about Temple Solel and a rabbi serving our congregation were embodied in Ilana, such as her personal warmth, desire and commitment to forge deep relationships, her passion to bring Torah alive by how we treat one another and the earth, and her wisdom beyond years in pastoral care.”
Linder also noted that Mills spent an additional year at HUC-JIR getting a master’s degree in Jewish education. “That reflects her passion to bring creativity to deepen our experience with children and families in our preschool and religious school,” he says.
The Chernow sisters come from a home infused with Judaism. Their mother, Arlene, is an outreach consultant for the Union for Reform Judaism, and their father, Eli, is a retired Superior Court judge who serves on the URJ’s North American board.
All three sisters agree that Judaism was central to their lives while growing up. “Judaism was just part of everything we did,” Jordana says.
Mills says her parents set the example that being Jewish was important. “Our home was always filled with Jewish everything. We had Shabbat every week and had 40 people over for Passover. Being Jewish was just who we were.”
Mari says her parents weren’t all that observant when she was a small child. They sent her to a Jewish school and when she came home singing “the lunch song, which we now know is the Motzi, my parents said, ‘What is this all about?'”
Now, 40 years later, her parents are very involved on a lay-leadership level. “They’re daveners, they’re learners and they’re very serious about their Judaism. It has really developed a little bit at a time,” Mari says. “They had such positive associations with their own Jewish life and Jewish growth, it just sort of dripped on us. I think of them as the opposite of the parents who said I hated religious school, you’re going to hate it too, so you’re going.”
Mills is enthusiastic about becoming the second rabbi at Temple Solel. She’s looking forward to participating in life cycle events, teaching and having one-on-one conversations with congregants. “I’m really excited to get to know the community and for us to get to know each other,” she says.
She will also take an active role in Temple Solel’s caring community. During rabbinic school, Mills spent a lot of time visiting hospital patients and working as a grief support group leader. Doing both at the same time showed her the importance of the “after the hospital moments,” when people were grieving and needed more rabbinic and community support.
Mills thought about becoming a hospital chaplain, but didn’t like it when the relationship with the patient ended after he or she went home. “I knew I wanted to spend time with people after the illness and after the scary moments,” she says.
While Mills was finishing school, her husband, Colby, moved the family into their new Scottsdale home with the help of Temple Solel volunteers. She hadn’t seen the house since they first looked at it, but that’s OK, she says. “The last two times we moved I was pregnant so I couldn’t do anything. I’m used to other people helping.”