After an almost yearlong search, Temple Ohav Shalom has hired a new permanent spiritual leader. Rabbi Bryna Milkow will officially start on July 15, serving the Allison Park congregation of 176 families.
Milkow is currently a congregational rabbi at Etz Hayim, an 80-family Reform congregation in Derry, N.H., about an hour from her hometown of Boston.
Milkow, who turns 50 in June, entered rabbinical school following careers in human resources, hospital administration and working at a residential home for young boys. After six years studying at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, including a year in Israel, Milkow was ordained in 2006.
“Everything I had done before had really prepared me for the rabbinate,” Milkow said, “though I didn’t realize it at the time, but it had led me to where I am today.”
Raised in a Conservative household, Milkow hadn’t been particularly observant after college. However, in her 30s, she rediscovered her Jewish roots when she began attending services at a Reform synagogue in her area. As her involvement increased, so did her desire to pursue the rabbinate.
Milkow lived and worked in Los Angeles while a student at HUC-JIR, and she was the associate rabbi for four years at Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation before coming to Derry, a town of approximately 34,000.
Etz Hayim is the only synagogue in southern New Hampshire.
Over her three years at Etz Hayim, she has led and implemented many programs, both for the congregation and the surrounding community, including TGIS (Thank Goodness It’s Shabbat), a monthly Shabbat experience meant to engage and integrate young families all the way through empty-nesters.
The search for a new rabbi at Ohav Shalom began when Rabbi Art Donsky, its spiritual leader since 1997, announced his retirement last spring. Rabbi Danny Schiff led the congregation for seven weeks last fall. Currently, Rabbi David Katz is serving as interim rabbi.
The 18-person Rabbi Transition Committee represented a cross section of members, from teens to seniors, and was led by Moira Singer.
“We connected with Rabbi Milkow from the first phone conversation,” Singer said. “The characteristics that she found most endearing and important in Temple Ohav Shalom are the same ones we found in her.
“We want our rabbi to reflect our congregation as our spiritual leader and be our partner in providing religious, spiritual, educational and social enrichment,” Singer continued. “Rabbi Milkow fits that description. She connects easily with all ages, listens well to others, asks insightful questions, enjoys teaching and brings experience beyond her years as a rabbi.”
Ohav Shalom President Ken Eisner echoed that sentiment.
“Rabbi Milkow is warm and inviting, which we believe embodies the foremost traits of our community,” he said. “She immediately connected with all demographics of our temple, from the preschool, to the teenagers, to the more mature members of our congregation. She also comes with the level and types of experience for which we were hoping. We are thrilled.”
Milkow said she was drawn to the vibrancy of the congregation.
“People really seem to love the congregation, they’re excited by it,” she said. “There’s a really nice energy in the place that was borne out when I came to visit.”
Additionally, she said she was attracted by the temple’s preschool, something not offered at Etz Hayim.
“We had one in Indianapolis,” Milkow said. “It fills the building with so much joy and energy that it’s wonderful.”
Apart from a short visit in the winter, Milkow has never been to Pittsburgh and is looking forward to exploring the city, but she plans to live within 15 minutes of the synagogue.
She also plans to acquaint herself with her new congregants before implementing new programming.
“My first priority when I get there is to meet people and understand the culture of the place, while getting to know Pittsburgh and settle in,” she said. “Together, we will figure out some wonderful programming, but I don’t have any preconceived notions as to what that might be.”
Nonetheless, education and music will be at the top of her list, as she is passionate about youth education and plans to work closely with the education leaders at Ohav Shalom. Congregants can also expect to see adult education offerings throughout the years. And while she does not play an instrument, she is a strong advocate for music in the synagogue, having introduced a music program at Etz Hayim.
Whatever direction Milkow takes Temple Ohav Shalom, the journey will be a labor of love. “I love the life of being a rabbi. It is my dream profession, something I really enjoy. In all, there are so many wonderful opportunities and privileges. It’s difficult and it has challenges, but at the end of the day, it’s what I love to do.”
(Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at email@example.com.)