Five rabbis, five perspectives
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Five rabbis, five perspectives

Ellen Jaffe-Gill, Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel, Maywood

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Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill

Fitting in to her new congregation will not be difficult, said Rabbi Ellen Jaffe-Gill, who will soon take up rabbinic duties at Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel. But traveling to and from her home in Willow Grove, Penn., to her new pulpit in Maywood will present more of a challenge.

Still, she noted, she is not daunted by this prospect. Not only has the fourth-year rabbinical student bought a four-wheel-drive vehicle, she grew up in Rockland County and says she knows the area well.

“I spent a good chunk of my time at Garden State Plaza,” she said, adding that “it was long enough ago that [Rockland] was still the country, with no mall.”

Jaffe-Gill, who attends the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, located just outside of Philadelphia, most recently served as the cantor of a small synagogue in California.

She began her cantorial work through the Reform movement about a dozen years ago and lived in Los Angeles for some 30 years before deciding to move to Pennsylvania and start rabbinical school.

Becoming a rabbi is not her second career, Jaffe-Gill said – “it’s more like my fourth or fifth career.”

“Before I was a cantor, I was a schoolteacher,” she said, noting that she taught for 14 years in the Los Angeles public school system. Before that, she worked as a lecturer and editor, and “all through that time I have been a writer.” The student rabbi also has performed professionally as part of a singing duo.

In addition to writing columns about Jewish life for magazines and newspapers, Jaffe-Gill is the editor of The Jewish Woman’s Book of Wisdom and the author of Embracing the Stranger: Intermarriage and the Future of the American Jewish Community, and No Big Deal, a book for young adults.

“I went into the rabbinate for a very practical reason,” she said. “Cantorial jobs are very scarce and most of the jobs that exist go to people right out of school.” But the more important reason is that “cantors don’t get a lot of respect. Now that synagogue music has become less formal, the cantor isn’t seen as a repository of tradition.”

“But we are,” she said. “Almost nobody but a movement-educated cantor can haul out the old chazanut.”

Jaffe-Gill said she loves being a cantor and is proud of that profession. Indeed, having cantorial skills was part of her motivation for going to rabbinical school.

“I figured I’d be a little more marketable as a rabbi who can sing,” she said, pointing out that at RTBI she will be the sole clergy at high holy day services.

As a student rabbi, she will be at the synagogue two Shabbatot a month. The other two weeks, laypeople will lead services.

“There’s a strong bench of people who can lead,” she said.

She also hopes to have a strong presence in the shul’s religious school on the Sunday mornings she is there.

“I’ll be doing hospital visits, home visits, teaching, and some adult education,” she added, pointing out that the very first Sunday she’s at the synagogue, she will help facilitate a high holy day program put together by the Jewish Outreach Institute especially for non-Jewish spouses.

“I’d love to help grow the congregation,” she said. “We’re the only Reconstructionist synagogue in Bergen County and I’d love to have the opportunity to educate the wider community on what Reconstructionism is.”

She describes the shul membership as diverse, including both seniors and families with children.

“It’s a successful congregation, in that it has managed to maintain a diverse population,” she said, adding that with available technology she should have no difficulty keeping in touch with synagogue members.

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