You Should Know … Rabbi Ariel Milan-Polisar

Ariel Milan-Polisar is a white woman with glasses and very curly hair, wearing a black blazer and green blouse.
Rabbi Ariel Milan-Polisar | Courtesy of Ariel Milan-Polisar

At first, Ariel Milan-Polisar was reluctant to go to summer camp.

Her parents love to tell the story of a young girl protesting in the car ride up to the Union for Reform Judaism Eisner Camp in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, only for her to return from orientation hours later begging to be dropped off for the summer.

During the 13 years Milan-Polisar was a camper, then a counselor, at Eisner Camp, she met close friends and coworkers who went on to become rabbis. She credits the experience as the beginning of her own path to becoming a rabbi.

“Camp was a place where I discovered how living Jewishly can just be so magical,” Milan-Polisar said.

With her summer camp days behind her, Milan-Polisar is ready to take another leap into a Jewish community. On July 5, she will join Congregation Kol Ami in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, as assistant rabbi. 

The 30-year-old moved from Fairmount to Marlton, New Jersey, for the job, her first as a pulpit rabbi. 

There’s a misconception among some clergy, Milan-Polisar said, that if a synagogue has merged or unified with another, that it means there’s something faulty about the spiritual community or its culture. At Kol Ami, which formed from a merger between Temple Emanuel and M’kor Shalom in 2022, this is far from the case.

“There’s so much energy around, and both communities are just so excited to be together and to be a part of such a vibrant community,” Milan-Polisar said.

Kol Ami congregants revere senior Rabbi Jennifer Frenkel, Milan-Polisar noticed during the hiring process. They wanted Frenkel to have the best clergy partner possible. Community members greeted the assistant rabbi-to-be with warmth and enthusiasm, wanting to get to know her personally, as more than just a leader on a bimah.

This is exactly what Milan-Polisar had hoped for when she attended Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion to become a rabbi. 

“I love the idea of getting to officiate life cycle [events] and be on the bimah and get to work with intergenerational community,” she said.

Milan-Polisar joined the rabbinate in 2021 in the midst of the pandemic when job opportunities for pulpit rabbis were scarce. After graduation, she moved from New York to Philadelphia, where she became the campus rabbi and rabbinic innovation fellow for the University of Pennsylvania Hillel.

She had read and heard secondhand about the mental health struggles of college students, and after arriving at Penn, she witnessed it. The Hillel home Steinhardt Hall was a refuge for stressed students, who could meet with friends, do homework or take time to learn something Jewish.

Even at an elite school, where stress runs high, Milan-Polisar felt she was able to make a difference. During her two years at Penn Hillel, she met a Brazilian student who had a Jewish grandmother, but was raised Christian in order to dodge antisemitism.

They met for coffee once or twice a month, and the student would ask Milan-Polisar about the upcoming Jewish holidays. She became involved in organizing Shabbat dinners and joined a group for Jewish students from Latin America. Judaism was a mystery for so long for this student, and Milan-Polisar felt she was able to help her gain a sense of Jewish understanding.

“Those are the kinds of relationships and stories that, when inevitably you have a hard day, are the things that get you through and remind you — I should say, remind me — that what I’m doing is important and worth it,” Milan-Polisar said.

In a time of decreasing membership and engagement across Greater Philadelphia area synagogues, this message is one Milan-Polisar tries to remember. 

“In order to make ends meet, and in order for me to get paid and all that, numbers are important,” she said. “And that depth of relationship is not to be ignored either.”

As Milan-Polisar transitions into her role as a spiritual leader of the Cherry Hill synagogue, she believes that building connections is the key to keeping congregants engaged. Whether or not people admit it, they stay at synagogues for the clergy, she said.

Milan-Polisar’s work will take her to the bimah, but it will also look like schmoozing after services, welcoming families and guiding congregants through both challenging and joyful times in their lives. Her goal is to make positive change within the congregation, but there’s a feeling that the congregation will transform her as well.

“Rabbis talk to people in their office, and they lead services, and they teach,” she said. “But I didn’t anticipate the reverence with which people regard rabbis and how much of a humbling experience that is.”

[email protected]


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here