Ilana mills makes history as the third of three sisters to become a rabbi

Clockwise from top left: Mari Chernow, Ilana Mills, Jordana Chernow-Reader, Arlene Chernow and Eli Chernow. Photo by Brian O’Connell

Like her classmates at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC-JIR), Ilana Mills is excited about becoming a rabbi. She doesn’t dwell much on the fact that she’s also making history.

But with her two older sisters ordained at HUC-JIR in recent years, Mills’ family becomes the first with three female sibling rabbis. Still, this noteworthy milestone is only part of the equation for the pragmatic Mills.

“I mainly just think about how lucky I am that I get to live out my dream,” said Mills, 32. “In some ways, it doesn’t feel like a big deal –— my sisters are just being who they are, and I’m just being who I am. I feel so grateful for the women rabbis that came before me and blazed a path for women in general. I do think about the significance sometimes, but really, it’s just a blessing.”

Considering their roots, it’s not a surprise they all chose this particular career path. Mills and her sisters, Rabbi Mari Chernow and Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, grew up in Sherman Oaks immersed in Jewish life. The threesome attended Stephen S. Wise Temple Day School and Camp Swig in the summers. All were active in the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY). Their parents have long been involved in the Reform Jewish community –— their father, retired Superior Court judge Eli Chernow, serves on the Union for Reform Judaism’s (URJ) national board, and their mother, Arlene Chernow, is a URJ outreach coordinator.

“My parents modeled Jewish living for us in every way,” Mills, a mother of two, explained. “We had Shabbat dinner every week. We had 45 people for Passover seders. They were always learning because they loved it and had a passion for it. When I think of how Jewish life should be, I think of how my parents are — always engaged, always growing.”

Story continues after the jump.

Video by Cathee Weiss, edited by Caren McCaleb. Courtesy of HUC-JIR

Mills was 16 when the urge to join the rabbinate first struck. She was at a NFTY weekend event, walking to Havdalah with a friend and considering the spirit of camaraderie at the gathering as the sun set over the ocean. “I had this moment of epiphany and said, ‘Oh my gosh, I want to be a rabbi!’ ” she recalled. “My friend just looked at me and said, ‘We all know you’re going to be a rabbi.’ ”

But Mills was suspicious of the impulse at first. “I got worried that the reason I felt that way was because becoming a rabbi was what I was tracked to do,” she said.

So instead, Mills enrolled at Franklin and Marshall College and tried to focus on a liberal arts education. She became a religious studies major, however, when she “fell in love” with Jewish philosophy. Still, she resisted the current. “After college, I told myself that I was not going to apply to synagogues because I was not going to be a rabbi,” she recalled.

Compelled to serve the Jewish community in some capacity, she ended up working at the Religious Action Center in Washington, D.C., and as a NFTY regional youth adviser. “The world was clearly trying to tell me something that I was not quite ready to hear,” she said.

Ilana Mills

It was a soul-searching conversation with a NFTY teen she was advising that finally sealed the deal. Mills remembers sitting on the trunk of her car with the girl, who was grappling with how the idea of God fits into the world. “I knew this was what I wanted to do for the rest of my life — I wanted to be able to teach and counsel, ask questions together and mentor,” Mills said. “The fear that I was doing it only because of my sisters went away. I knew I was doing it because I wanted to. There was a part of me that had resisted because I didn’t want people to tell me I was just going into the family business, but I realized that not going due to family pressure would be just as bad as going due to family pressure.”

Mills’ sisters couldn’t be happier for her. “Ilana really values family education — she’s got a knack for connecting with people and helping people,” said Jordana Chernow-Reader, ordained in 2010. “This is a good career choice for each one of us. And it’s special that we as a family get to do something that no one has done before.”

“It’s really something to celebrate, and something that’s so nice to share with my sisters,” added Mari Chernow, ordained in 2003. “It’s hard to say what the larger implications are, but it’s a good time for women in the rabbinate.”

Mills will have plenty of time to reflect on the big picture when she starts her new job. She will take a post as the second rabbi at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz.

“I’m so excited,” Mills said. “This is something I’ve been training to do for six years, and something I’ve thought about for 10 before that. It’s such a calling for me. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”

To Each Her Own

All three sisters may have ultimately chosen to go down the same career path, but each one has defined her own area of interest and pursues her passion with a unique flair.

Rabbi Mari Chernow, ordained at HUC-JIR in 2003, has been the senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix for the past three years. Deeply interested in Jewish healing, she enjoys working with the synagogue’s Deutsch Family Shalom Center, a resource of mind-body-soul programming and spiritual learning.

Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, ordained in 2010, is director of lifelong learning at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura. There, she oversees educational programs for students of all ages and creates “family education days” that sometimes include visits to a local organic farm. Not surprisingly, one of her favorite teaching topics is how biblical matriarchs can be role models for women today.

Ilana Mills, who was ordained on May 13, is also passionate about family education. She is about to begin a job as the second rabbi at Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz., where she will live 15 minutes away from Mari.