Rabbi Estelle Mills
Director, Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy (NNJJA)
As director of NNJJA (the Northern New Jersey Jewish Academy) Rabbi Mills enjoys the connections she develops with the students and families of the school.
With 22 years in the rabbinate, Rabbi Mills has experienced the challenges of family life and Jewish life, both as a rabbi and a parent. She can empathize with the struggles of today’s Jewish families to make Judaism central to their lives when there are so many other competing activities demanding their time. For example, her daughter is a Division I athlete who competes in diving for the University of Pennsylvania; this gave Rabbi Mills a direct window into the juggling act parents do to make time for both Religious School and rigorous sports training in their children’s schedules.
Still, Rabbi Mills passionately believes that Jewish activities and education are essential to strengthening Jewish identification in our youth and ensuring our Jewish future. That’s why, for her, the answer isn’t throwing in the towel or watering down content; it’s in making these experiences valuable, meaningful and accessible. She believes Judaism can coexist and enhance competing secular activities, but only if Jewish programming is innovative, creative, exciting and flexible enough to be compelling to today’s Jewish individuals and families. She recognizes that we are living in a time of great innovation in almost every area of life, and Jewish education must embrace these innovations and employ them to make Jewish education exciting and compelling.
Studies have demonstrated that involvement in youth groups and Jewish camping lead to increased engagement in adult Jewish life. The learning that takes place in youth groups and camp settings is experiential and informal, yet rich in substance and content and deeply grounded in friendships and mentoring. Rabbi Mills believes our congregational learning experiences must strive to include these same elements. Her curriculum thus incorporates creative approaches and “out of the box” programs for early childhood, youth, teens and parents in informal and formal classroom settings. Her rabbinate has, by choice, been primarily focused on serving as a hands-on educator. Her passion and greatest strength is in teaching and getting individuals excited about Judaism and Jewish learning.
Rabbi Mills’ love for Jewish education and her decision to enter the rabbinate were inspired by her own involvement in NFTY, the Reform movement youth group. She later worked as an aide in the supplemental high school program in a synagogue in Greensboro, North Carolina, her first job in Jewish education. Ever since, she has been actively involved in teaching: during her undergraduate years at the University of Michigan, while attending rabbinic school and, of course, throughout her rabbinate. She has also served on the faculty at Goldman Union Camp Institute (GUCI) in Indianapolis, Indiana for the last twenty summers.
Rabbi Mills was born in Yonkers, New York and has many extended family members in the northern New Jersey and the greater Tri-state region. When she was still very young, her family moved to North Carolina, and she remained a transplanted southerner until she left for college in Ann Arbor. There, she majored in Jewish history, and afterward, received her master’s in Hebrew letters and rabbinic ordination from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. During her four years in rabbinical school, she had the wonderful experience of serving as the first student rabbi and educator for the newly formed congregation Beth Shalom in Cary, North Carolina and loved the opportunities that were afforded her as she helped this young congregation develop both ritually and educationally. Following ordination, her first position was at Temple Beth Israel/Shaare Zedek in Lima, Ohio. She has also served as educator of the Conservative congregation, B’nai Israel in Albuquerque, New Mexico; as rabbi/educator of Congregation Kol Am in the St. Louis suburb of Ballwin; and as rabbi/educator of the Ames Jewish Congregation in Ames, Iowa. Her most recent post, where she spent a dozen years, was rabbi/educator of Congregation Kol Chadash in the Cleveland suburb of Solon, Ohio.
She now lives with her family in Mountain Lakes.