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A Call to the Rabbinic Life

Potomac’s Neil Tow serves as rabbinic intern at a conservative congregation in Loudoun, Va.

Rabbi Leonard Cahan was there when Neil Tow was born, during Tow’s graduation from Winston Churchill High School in 1996, and when he married Rachel Schwartz of Narberth, Pa. Now Tow, who grew up in Potomac and attends Jewish Theological Seminary in New York, hopes to become a similar part of people’s lives.

Before Tow graduates with 20 classmates at Jewish Theological Seminary, he will complete a year as the rabbinic intern at Congregation Sha’are Shalom in Leesburg, Va. “I’ve almost come full circle,” said Tow, who grew up in Potomac as a member of Congregation Har Shalom.

“The central part of growing up was our synagogue,” Tow said. Har Shalom’s previous rabbi, Leonard Cahan, was especially influential to Tow and many others. Tow was one of at least four Har Shalom members who went on to become conservative rabbis.

“Growing up there was a great place to be Jewish,” said Tow, who was involved in United Synagogue Youth, but never thought seriously about becoming a rabbi until midway through college.

ONE WEEKEND each month, Tow travels by train from New York to Washington. He’ll visit his parents Leonard and Michelle Tow in Potomac. He’ll then head to Leesburg, where he meets congregants, does pastoral counseling, performs a regular service and a family service, oversees the youth group and leads adult education discussions. Saturday afternoon is Tow’s time to meet the congregants, sometimes informally and sometimes for pastoral counseling.

On Saturday nights, before Shabbat ends, Tow devotes his time to adult education, discussions on such subjects as ethics, Jewish views of the afterlife, or repentance and how to fix broken relationships.

“It exhausts me physically and emotionally — in a really good way,” Tow said. “It’s really the whole package.”

After internships at a congregation in New Jersey and as chaplain at Children’s Hospital in Washington, D.C., Tow feels certain that he wants to become lead a congregation — not everybody who graduates from the seminary does so. “There are so many different job options that are open to a graduating rabbi,” Tow said. “Some of us go into congregations … some to teaching, some to academia.”

Tow attended Tufts University in Boston, where he majored in international affairs and Spanish. Early in college he interned with the Agency for International Development, and planned on attending law school. Midway through college, he took stock of what he planned to do with his life. He already helped run conservative Jewish services on the Tufts campus, and performed with a Jewish a capella group. Now for the first time, Tow began to seriously consider becoming a conservative rabbi. “[Until then] I guess I’d never really internalized it,” Tow said. “I never really thought of it as a career path. … I think there was some divine intervention there.”

Congregation Sha’are Shalom is Loudoun County’s only conservative congregation, and has built Loudoun’s first synagogue, which was dedicated in February 2005. “The congregation is also very young and they’re new; they’re establishing an identity, and it’s exciting to be part of that,” Tow said. “It’s kind of a dynamic place.”

The congregation’s growth reflects that of Loudoun County, where several of Tow’s friends from Churchill now live. “Loudoun County is really growing by leaps and bounds,” Tow said. “One of the things is outreach — how do we reach out to families that move into Loudoun County?”

Recently, the congregation hosted a barbecue that was an opportunity for community members to become acquainted with Sha’are Shalom.

“I always felt strongly that going into congregation work … would be a chance to work with people of all ages,” Tow said. “It feels very special, and I feel very privileged to share with people their life-cycle events.”