GREAT BARRINGTON -- Rabbi Deborah Zecher, who guided Hevreh of Southern Berkshire's physical and spiritual growth for more than two decades, is stepping down as the synagogue's spiritual leader.

Zecher, 58, officially retires today as Hevreh's first ordained rabbi in the congregation's 40-year history. On Tuesday, Rabbi Robert Ourach succeeds Zecher on an interim basis and will conduct his first Shabbat at Hevreh on Friday at 6 p.m.

Since Zecher's arrival 22 years ago, Hevreh has quadrupled in membership to 400 families and greatly expanded its programs and services after building a new house of worship on State Road that opened in June of 1999.

The Pennsylvania native credits a forward-thinking congregation for making her job easier.

"It's been a highly collaborative venture -- we've been wonderful partners in creating this community," she said in an Eagle interview. "This hasn't been a one-woman show."

Long-time member Paula Hellman believes Zecher was the right person to help Hevreh grow beyond its humble beginnings of meeting in private homes or community space.

"Your inspirational leadership built this," said Hellman, who recently retired as Hevreh's education director. "One definition for rabbi is teacher ... and you are a teacher par excellence."

Hellman's remarks came during Friday's special Shabbat at Hevreh paying tribute to Zecher, followed by a farewell event on Saturday, both attended by hundreds of family, friends, members of Hevreh and other area Jewish congregations.

Shoshana Goldberg of Tyringham was grateful for Zecher's insight and encouragement in guiding her at Hevreh.

"With the help of Rabbi Zecher, I realized choosing Judaism was only the beginning of my journey," she said.

Zecher's rabbinical journey began while growing up in Monroeville outside Pittsburgh. During the night of her bat mitzvah, the initiation ceremony for Jewish girls, the 13-year-old had an epiphany.

"Everything meaningful to me is happening at this moment," she recalled. "I said to myself, ‘Wow, I should be a rabbi.' "

Zecher noted female rabbis were a rarity 45 years ago, but she would eventually complete her rabbinical education and see her religious career hit its stride when she came to Hevreh.

In 1992, Zecher, her husband, Rabbi Dennis Ross, and the couple's three children moved to the Berkshires as Ross had become the rabbi at Temple Anshe Amunium in Pittsfield. That year, after a succession of student rabbis, Hevreh chose Zecher as their first ordained rabbi and the congregation moved into its first permanent location, buying a home on Mahaiwe Street. Hevreh soon outgrew the former residence and the members decided to build their own synagogue. The State Road location has allowed Hevreh to attract more members, increase educational offerings and become a more integral part of the community, according to Zecher.

"I expect the congregation to continue to strengthen because it hasn't been about me," she said.

While Phyllis Weiss was "devastated" when Zecher announced her retirement 18 months ago, she will leave a lasting legacy.

"Friendship and love are permanent and those remain in place," she said during the Shabbat.

Zecher will also remain in the public eye as she devotes more time to singing theatrical show tunes. Her musical career took off a decade ago when she graduated from the National Cabaret Conference at Yale University. She specializes in the music of Jewish composers and lyricists and has performed both in the Berkshires and New York City.

Cabaret singing has been a perfect companion to Zecher's religious profession.

"The liturgy gives us the tool to express deep theological hopes, thoughts and dreams -- cabaret expresses all those in a secular way," she said.

To Dick Lindsay:
rlindsay@berkshireeagle.com,
or (413) 496-6233