In Ellie Shemtov’s previous life, before she was ordained, she was the head of film cataloging at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. She was an active member of her synagogue there, and she frequently led services and chanted Torah.
However, she said it wasn’t until her marriage fell apart that she started on the path that would end in her becoming a rabbi and moving to work at the Rutland Jewish Center.
“My mother was a very angry person, and my whole childhood I was screamed at a lot,” Shemtov said. “I went from that into marriage with an alcoholic ... and I didn’t really have a clue who I was.”
After leaving her previous career behind, her plan was to go to school to become a cantor, the song leader in a synagogue. With her music degree, Shemtov has always valued the musical aspects of Jewish prayer.
When she arrived at the Academy for Jewish Religion in Yonkers, New York, her classmates and teachers told her she should study to be a rabbi. It took three years and a lot of soul searching before Shemtov finally admitted they were right.
Between her cantorial and rabbinical studies, Shemtov was in school for 10 years. She was ordained in May 2014 and most recently worked at a congregation in Freehold, New Jersey. She began at the Rutland Jewish Center on July 1 and feels the congregation is a good fit for her.
“I saw many more opportunities here in every aspect of being a rabbi, and that’s already really come to fruition,” she said. “The way a service is conducted in this congregation is more in tune with the way I envision a service to be.”
Despite the appreciation for tradition, Shemtov has found the community at the center open to new ideas, which she appreciates.
“They’re open to change, which is a little unusual,” she said. “I love the tradition, but I love new ways of doing things as well.”
Shemtov said she feels an affinity for this part of the world and is happy to finally get the chance to live in Vermont. She is especially excited for winter.
“I’m not going to tell you I want it to be zero degrees every day, but I do appreciate cold weather,” she said.
As she transitions to the rural setting, Shemtov said one of her goals is to help the Rutland Jewish community connect with other groups in the area.
“We’re not an isolated community. There’s this whole community around us,” Shemtov said. “We need to step outside our building and connect with others.”
She also hopes to continue raising awareness about addiction in the Jewish community, a topic she has focused on in the past. She attributes her interest in this work to her late ex-husband, who died of complications relating to alcoholism in 2010.
“I keep hearing that Rutland has a problem (with addiction) — every town in America has a problem. I don’t know, I haven’t really identified if there’s a particularly unusual problem here, but people talk about it a lot,” she said. “I am very interested in showing people how ... a lot of what Judaism has to offer are really wonderful tools for people in recovery.”
As she prepares to dive into her various passion projects, she is also readying the RJC for a very busy season in the Jewish calendar: the fall High Holidays. This will coincide with the start of a new year at the Hebrew School, which Shemtov is responsible for running.
As she hits the ground running, she said her goals in Rutland mirror her wider goals as a spiritual leader. Her mission is to “make music every day, be grateful to God for all that God has done for us, be joyous, be kind and make a difference in the world.”
“That’s really the essence of what I’ve always wanted to bring as clergy,” she said.