Ilana Mills, left, with her sisters, Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader and Rabbi Mari Chernow
Like her sister – and her sister before her – Ilana Mills is becoming a rabbi. When this year's class from the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s Jack H. Skirball Campus in Los Angeles is ordained on Sunday, May 13, 2012, Mills will become the third sister in her family to be a rabbi, a feat never before accomplished. It was only 40 years ago that the first woman was ordained by HUC-JIR.
Mills comes from a Sherman Oaks, Calif. family dedicated to serving the Jewish people. Her mother, Arlene, is a longtime Outreach consultant for the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ). Father Eli is a retired Superior Court judge who now practices alternate dispute resolution and serves on the URJ's North American Board.
Then there's the sister act. The oldest, Rabbi Mari Chernow, was ordained in 2003 and became senior rabbi at Temple Chai in Phoenix in 2009. One year later, her sibling, Rabbi Jordana Chernow-Reader, was ordained and became Director of Lifelong Learning at Temple Beth Torah in Ventura, Calif.
Now it's Mills' turn.
Mills, 32, was a leader in the Reform Movement throughout her youth, growing up in Stephen S. Wise Temple in Bel Air and becoming national programming vice president of the North American Federation of Temple Youth (NFTY).
Still, she rebelled a little at the thought of following in her family’s footsteps, even though she had considered becoming a rabbi as early as age 16. “I started to worry that I was going into the field because that was what Chernows did. That’s kind of what I was being tracked to do,” Mills said. “I wanted to make sure that I was going to be a rabbi for the right reasons.”
Mills became a religious studies major at Franklin Marshall College, a small liberal arts college in Lancaster, Pa., with plans to become a teacher. Upon graduation, she spent four years working in Washington, D.C., at the Religious Action Center and URJ as a Regional Director of Youth and Informal Engagement and NFTY Mid-Atlantic Region Advisor But in 2005, after a particularly meaningful conversation about G-d with a NFTY teen whom she was advising, Mills started on a path that eventually brought her back home – to LA and what some might call her family business. She enrolled in HUC-JIR.
“That afternoon, I started filling out my application,” the mother of two said. “It just is such a calling.”
Mills and the rest of her classmates will be ordained May 13 at 10 a.m. at Temple Israel of Hollywood, 7300 Hollywood Blvd. Then she heads to Temple Solel in Paradise Valley, Ariz., where she will serve as second rabbi just a stone’s throw from her sister, Mari.
The fact that three sisters decided to seek ordination has lessons that resonate beyond their family. It’s a reflection of the more than 600 female rabbis who have been ordained by the College-Institute over the years, according to Rabbi Dvora Weisberg, Director of HUC-JIR’s School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles.
“This is a real tribute to the visibility of women in the rabbinate,” she said. Consider this year’s ordination class in Los Angeles, where all seven students are women. This isn’t to say that the gender balance has tipped the other way – the combined ordination classes this year at HUC-JIR’s campuses in New York and Cincinnati are nearly balanced, as are the next four ordination classes systemwide – but it shows how far women have come since Sally Priesand became the first female American rabbi in 1972.
“For me, it doesn’t feel like a big deal that I’m a woman,” Mills said. “In my lifetime, I was always told that women could do anything and play any leadership role. I am forever grateful to the women rabbis who came before me.”