Finishing his fifth and final year at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America in New York, Neil Tow, 27, will return to his roots as Congregation Sha'are Shalom's rabbinic intern for 2005-2006.
Tow grew up in Potomac, Md. After graduating from Churchill High School in 1996, Tow attended Tufts University in Medford, Mass., where he majored in international relations and Spanish. Now nearly finished with his graduate studies, Tow will join Leesburg's premier conservative synagogue, Sha'are Shalom, as a rabbinic intern.
"I was attracted to Sha'are Shalom because it is small and looking to grow," Tow said. "I'm really interested to work with the community. It happens to be in the larger area where I grew up so I already have a sense of the people."
Many people applied for the rabbinic intern position; however, only four outstanding candidates were interviewed, said Lorraine Davis, Congregation Sha'are Shalom's vice president.
Tow was easily chosen as a good fit for the synagogue. "He is knowledgeable and very energetic," Davis said. "He has a great deal of intellectual curiosity. He has a good background and seemed really excited to work with us. He is just so charming."
AS RABBINIC INTERN, Tow will have many responsibilities. He will conduct services and study sessions, work with children, counsel people, participate in bar and bat mitzvahs, baby naming and possible conversions.
Davis hopes that Tow will initiate a Jewish-themed music program as well. "We're excited about a music program too because we've heard that he has a lovely singing voice," she said.
Tow's interest in rabbinic studies developed as a response to his love of people. "My motivation is mostly the Jewish idea of community," he said. "Living and working in a community over a long period of time, becoming close to the people, participating in their rituals, being with people in happy times to celebrate and to provide counseling when people are troubled."
His interest in rabbinic work was also fostered by Rabbi Leonard Cahan of Congregation Har Shalom, the conservative Potomac synagogue Tow and his family attend. "I've known him since I was born and he was at my wedding. He's now a close friend of the family," he said. "He's a commanding speaker and involved politically. He's my role model."
For Tow, the most rewarding aspect of his work is actually seeing the positive effects his teaching has on people.
"The most satisfying thing is when I see people I taught take the skills I taught them and use them," he said. "If I teach someone to read from the Torah, have them take ownership of it. Just knowing that I was available for someone when they needed help."
There are many obstacles that modern society provides to the spiritual community in general. Tow believes that overcoming the obstacles culture presents is a worthy endeavor.
"Things like tradition and ritual are less important because of more immediate things that give us satisfaction like the Internet and movies," he said. "People have less time to read, think, write and connect with tradition."
OVER THE PAST four years of rabbinic study, Tow has had numerous experiences working at various synagogues as well as many community programs and hospitals, including the Presbyterian Hospital in New York and the Children's Hospital in Washington, D.C. His experience as a chaplain at the Children's Hospital was not only inspiring but also very difficult.
"It was very difficult to be a chaplain and to see these children alone when they're suffering," he said. "Trying to give them support was often emotionally difficult, but also inspiring."
As a burgeoning establishment in the community, Sha'are Shalom is growing, which, according to Tow, is challenging, but a great opportunity.
"Sha'are Shalom is looking to be involved with the elderly through strong adult education programs," he said. "I would really like to see adults take ownership of their Jewish identity through learning. They want to make a kosher kitchen. They're really growing and moving ahead in a close-knit community. I support that effort."
Tow is certain that he will have a rewarding experience as a rabbinic intern at Congregation Sha'are Shalom and has many hopes and goals for himself and the synagogue, including establishing social projects to address homelessness, poverty and hunger.
"One of my goals is to make a connection between the synagogue and the community and not just the Jewish community, but the community in general," he said. "I'd like to create a sense of awareness and make an impact on Northern Virginia through these social causes and maybe even beyond. It's about broadening horizons and looking inwards and nurturing that spirit."