Rabbi becomes advocate for female peers

Rabbi becomes advocate for female peers

Staff Writer, New Jersey Jewish News

Rabbi Mary Zamore said that when it comes to the rabbinate, “there is still much work to be done before women cross the finish line.”
Rabbi Mary Zamore said that when it comes to the rabbinate, “there is still much work to be done before women cross the finish line.”

When she started rabbinical school, Rabbi Mary Zamore wrote in 2012, she never thought that her gender would define her as a rabbi.

Today, after 18 years in the rabbinate, she is exasperated that younger colleagues are “still caught off guard” by gender issues, from maternity leave to equal pay to judgments by congregations about whether women rabbis will be devoted to their careers. 

“By now these should not be an issue,” she said. So she’s decided to take the bull by the horns. In July, she became director of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, an advocacy group on behalf of women rabbis. It is part of the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.

“This was an amazing opportunity for me to be able to devote professional time to issues I have worked on as a volunteer since my student days,” she told NJJN in a phone interview, two months into the job.

Until now, she has spent her career in the pulpit, serving Temple Emanu-El in Westfield for five years, Temple B’nai Or in Morristown for eight years, and most recently the Jewish Center of Northwest New Jersey for two years.

Zamore lives with her husband, Terje Lande, and their 15-year-old son in Westfield, where they are members of Temple Emanu-El. 

The move is bittersweet for Zamore. Letting go of pulpit life is “a little hard,” she said, but added, “This is the perfect shidduch for me.”

Zamore succeeds Rabbi Jacqueline Koch Ellenson in her new role. 

In addition to writing about women in the rabbinate, Zamore has been an active member of WRN and served as copresident, a volunteer position, with Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell from 2007 until 2009.

Acknowledging how far women have come since the first one — New Jersey’s Rabbi Sally Priesand — was ordained in 1972, Zamore pointed out that “there is still much work to be done before women cross the finish line.”

There are 650 Reform women rabbis, among 2,000 members of the CCAR. 

Pay equity, family leave, and stereotypes top Zamore’s agenda. 

“Unfortunately, the rabbinate is no exception” to the unequal pay that plagues women across professions, she said, pointing to a recent CCAR survey revealing that, compared to men, women rabbis are paid “the same 77 cents on the dollar” that women earn in other fields. She said she expects to announce an initiative to address this issue over the next couple of months. 

Zamore said she is discouraged that women are still struggling to get paid maternity leave. Time off after the birth of a baby, she said, should be available to staff on every level of every Jewish organization, and should be approached the same way as family leave for, say, an ailing parent.

Gender bias still affects hiring and promotions of women in the rabbinate. “On a weekly basis, we are getting reports that congregations are still having conversations about whether they want a woman rabbi, and if they hire a woman maybe she’ll have babies or get married and not focus on the congregation,” Zamore said. “Gender is still defining us in ways it shouldn’t.”

She pointed to the recently released training videos used by Facebook to counter the unconscious bias that affects hiring and promotion practices in the workplace. She thinks showing these might be a good way to start “some interesting and important conversations.”

A greater struggle

Outside North America, liberal rabbis are facing an even greater struggle to gain a foothold. Israel, she said, “is a special place; women have it even tougher.” There, she said, families open to having a liberal rabbi officiate at a life-cycle event will, when the moment comes, choose a man instead, sometimes just to appease a family member. This applies equally to Israelis and to Americans who travel to Israel for life-cycle events. WRN, with the help of ARZA, the Zionist arm of the Reform movement, has begun bringing women rabbis from Israel to its conferences. After speaking about their experiences to the group, they are urging their American colleagues to encourage congregants heading to Israel for a life-cycle event to engage a woman rabbi to officiate.

“Bring air and light to issues so people know they exist,” is how Zamore describes her approach to all of these issues.

Occasionally, she said, she needs to explain to people why organizations like WRN still exist. But that’s the easy part.

“I think it’s easy to engage people in conversations. It’s harder for institutions to make changes,” she said, especially when they perceive that such changes may affect the bottom line. Nonetheless, she thinks it’s how Jewish organizations ought to operate. “These are at the core of Jewish values and should be part of our employment practices.” 

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