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Rabbi Elaine Zecher: Temple Israel’s First Female Rabbi

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Rabbi Elaine Zecher, who became the senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston on July 1, is the eleventh rabbi in the congregation’s 160-year history and the first female rabbi.

Mary Markos
Associate Editor

At the core of Rabbi Elaine Zecher’s work as a rabbi is building relationships with members of the congregation. “To me, being a rabbi means being with them in their highest and lowest moments and everything in between,” she said. Zecher became the senior rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston on July 1, the eleventh rabbi in the congregation’s 160-year history and its first female rabbi.

What has excited her most about becoming a senior rabbi is how familiar she is with the Boston community. “I am fortunate to have many friends and have those lovely connections in terms of understanding how the Boston community works,” she said.

In her new title as senior rabbi, she feels she is able to navigate through new waters into creative places. “There’s a wonderful legacy at Temple Israel of a strong learning, strong social justice, creative liturgical experience and I think that’s all part of who we are,” she said. She related one of her favorite quotes from Psalm 100:2. “Approach God with Gladness, come before the Eternal with Joy.” In her mind, having this attitude towards Judaism has helped her become the best rabbi she is able to be.

Since she began working at Temple Israel in 1990, she and her husband raised their kids as a part of the community. “The congregation saw me raise my children, they saw me balancing, like so many men and women do, work life and family life,” she said. With laughter, Zecher related how some members told her that every time they saw her she was pregnant. “My three children were brought into the loving arms of the community,” said Zecher.

With her kids grown up and exploring their own lives, she finds herself at a  new phase in life. “I feel like I am launching a new career, even though it’s the same place, but it’s in a new position with fresh eyes,” said Zecher. As the first female rabbi in the congregation, one might expect she would come across hostility or sexism in the workplace. However, she believes that having the experience of raising a family in the community made her presence seem second nature, reducing the feeling of a glass ceiling break for her as the first female rabbi.

The rabbis who preceded Zecher, in her mind, were “very female welcoming.” She felt warmly embraced by the congregation since she first began working there. “Frankly, the congregation was so right for a female rabbi when I came in 1990 it was like they said to me, ‘What took you so long?’” she chuckled and said, “as if I had something to do with that.”

However, Zecher did have something to add to the topic of gender relations. When she was a rabbinic student at a congregation in Jupiter, Florida, she had a great relationship with the members, especially the children. So much so that when one child met another rabbi she said to her mother, “Something isn’t right here, mommy.” The mother replied, “What is it?” The little girl said, “This rabbi is a man, and rabbis are women!”

In Zecher’s mind, it was a long time ago that in a child’s mind there were professions designated by gender. “Now I think the world has changed in that kids are saying men and women can be anything and that’s what I like to see,” said Zecher.

Having been part of a group called the Institute for Jewish Spirituality for years, she has learned the importance of nurturing her spirit. She has attended a number of retreats, including one ten years ago where she learned the art of meditation. She also finds physical exercise nurturing. “I’m a distance runner, I like to run. I don’t have ear phones, I just like to move through the world,” said Zecher.

Naturally, as a rabbi, she also finds prayer to be very nurturing, along with spending time in the community and learning. “How fortunate am I that the very essence of the job that I do lets me nurture my own soul as I help to nurture other people’s souls,” said Zecher.

An area of the rabbinate that Zecher finds inspiring is when she officiates at a funeral. “When I sit with the family and I hear them speak about the particular person, even if I’ve never met the person, to get to know someone through the eyes and words of other people to me is one of the greatest honors,” said Zecher. “I would say that has always been a big part of what I do,” she added.

When her father died 16 years ago, she remembered being consoled by the experiences she had in comforting members of the congregation, and feels honored to be able to offer comfort in the grieving process for others.

“Even when there are sad moments and challenging moments, what I love so much about being Jewish is that Judaism is a pathway, a way of seeing the world, understanding the world, and living one’s life,” said Zecher.

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