A Leader Among Men

Elaine Zecher '83
Mike Lovett
Elaine Zecher '83

When Elaine Zecher’s daughter was a preschooler walking the main hallway of the religious school at Temple Israel of Boston, she used to point at the framed photos of the congregation’s senior rabbis past and present, reciting as she went: “Man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man.”

Last December, when Zecher ’83 called her daughter at college to tell her she had just been named the temple’s first female senior rabbi, the young woman said her refrain would henceforth be forever changed: “Now I get to say, ‘Man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, man, mom.’”

Zecher tears up reliving this conversation, just as she did during her formal installation as leader of New England’s largest Reform congregation. But becoming senior rabbi was not the first time Zecher broke the stained-glass ceiling. In 1990, she became the congregation’s first female rabbi, a momentous event in the history of the temple, which once counted Brandeis founding president Abram Sachar and many of the university’s early leaders as members.

Raised in Monroeville, Pennsylvania, a decidedly non-Jewish suburb of Pittsburgh, Zecher knew her faith would always be a central part of her life. Her parents, Albert and Rita, founded the local temple. She followed her sister, Deborah ’77, and her brother, Steven ’80, to Brandeis, where she delighted in being part of the religious majority.

“When I went to Brandeis, I discovered that Jews who live among Jews don’t have to always assert their Judaism,” she says. “For me growing up, if you didn’t assert your Judaism, you were lost.”

At Brandeis, Zecher conducted admissions tours and interviewed prospective students, traveled to New York and Florida to share the Brandeis experience with alumni and donors, and led the Class of 1983’s senior-gift fundraising efforts. She also delivered the senior address at Commencement, sharing the stage with dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, an honorary-degree recipient.

After being ordained at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 1988, Zecher returned to the Boston area as program director and Jewish resource director at Stoughton’s Striar Jewish Community Center before coming to Temple Israel.

Because of Temple Israel’s size — the congregation is composed of about 1,500 families — it functions much like a large organization, giving Zecher opportunities to serve as both spiritual and communal leader.

An entire shelf in her office is dedicated to books about management and effective leadership, and she frequently quotes gurus like Stephen Covey (“The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People”), Bill George (“True North”) and Michael Hammer (“Reengineering the Corporation”).

“For an executive running a major synagogue, not having management skills and know-how can be a detriment,” she says.

Over the years, Zecher has taken on leadership roles with national organizations, helping develop new Reform Movement prayer books, serving as vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and sitting on the New England regional board of the Anti-Defamation League. Her base, though, remains Temple Israel.

“I’m very excited for the future of this congregation,” she says. “We live in a world that’s frightening, but to have this place, where there is such spiritual sustenance, makes you feel as if you are not alone.

“I want people to lift up their eyes and see the awe in the world.”

— David E. Nathan