When Zoe McCoon was preparing for her bat mitzvah, she was eager to “lean into my inner Jewish nerd.” Her rabbi, impressed, couldn’t help but ask her, “Have you ever thought about being a rabbi?”
“Some people might not take [it] as a compliment, but it was definitely the biggest compliment for me,” she said in an interview with J.
Today, she can answer that question definitively. On July 1, McCoon, who was ordained this spring, will become the head rabbi at Temple Beth Torah. She will be the first female rabbi to lead the Reform Fremont synagogue since it was established in 1962.
McCoon, a native of Michigan who is moving to the Bay Area for the job, said she plans to focus some of her energy on supporting those who feel marginalized within the Jewish community.
“What are the voices that aren’t being heard that need an amplification system?” she posed. “And how can I amplify [their] needs?”
That philosophy, she said, is inspired by experiences in her hometown of Flint, the now-infamous city north of Detroit where close to 40 percent of residents live in poverty and where in 2014 the water was found to be contaminated with lead. The Flint Jewish community numbers about 100 to 150 families, McCoon said, and while her own family and the temple they attended weren’t affected by the water crisis, plenty of people she knew were.
While attending University of Michigan as a women’s studies major, McCoon remembers calling her mom and asking how her community was faring.
“It’s definitely something that fits into … the work that I am passionate about doing in terms of advocating for the people who are most affected by these issues,” she said. “It usually tends to be people who don’t have the resources to advocate” for themselves.
After graduating in 2015, McCoon packed up her things from Ann Arbor and headed to Detroit to become a fellow for Hazon, the Jewish environmental organization with locations around the country. It was at Hazon that she met Sue Salinger, the founding director of the Detroit office.
“Zoe was really eager to explore and try new things to resonate with people,” Salinger told J. One event McCoon helped organize was a Havdalah service on the Detroit River. She also helped Salinger with that year’s Michigan Jewish Food Festival, which attracted close to 5,000 people.
“She worked in the Jewish community across denominational differences. She was able to bring a lot of people together,” said Salinger. “There’s just not a lot of people like her.”
That ability to work with and respect differences was instilled in McCoon as a child. She comes from an interfaith family; her mother is Jewish and her father is “agnostic of some sort.”
“At no point in our upbringing [would] my younger sister and I question [whether] we’re part Jewish, or we’re Jew-ish,” said McCoon. “No, we’re just a part of the community.”
In 2016, McCoon started her rabbinical studies at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, spending her first year in Jerusalem and the remaining four in Cincinnati. While there, McCoon was exposed to the city’s largely German Jewish community; her own family comes from Eastern Europe.
“I got there and started paying attention to a number of academic Jewish things that I hadn’t really paid attention to before,” she said. “It was a lot more about looking critically at our texts and looking into a lot of practical things that I definitely didn’t have in my tool belt.”
Jan Katzew, an associate professor of education and Jewish thought at HUC, had McCoon as a student and later oversaw her rabbinical thesis, which he described in an interview with J. as “substantive” and “innovative.” (The topic was intimacy and sexuality within Jewish spaces.)
Katzew described McCoon as “joyful,” “welcoming,” “wise” and “learned.”
“Knowing Zoe, I think she will be very intentional about community organizing and community building,” said Katzew. “She’s an excellent listener and learner. Before very long, the [Fremont Jewish] community is likely to count its blessings.”
McCoon will be taking over for Rabbi Avi Schulman, who has been at Beth Torah since 2007. The synagogue has about 140 families and a preschool, as well as youth and adult education. In May, volunteers from the temple teamed up with members of the local Muslim community to help distribute packages for homeless individuals, all while conflict had erupted in Israel and Gaza.
It’s a well-established community and has been led by “a line of rabbis that have been there for a very long time,” McCoon said. “I am the first female rabbi. And for many people, either the second or third rabbi there in living memory. In many ways, I’m a different kind of rabbi.”
Lauren Ravenscroft, who oversees membership at the temple, told J. that the community was “very excited” to have McCoon join.
“We are looking forward to having her beautiful voice and spirit blend with our existing traditions,” Ravenscroft said in an email. “Rabbi Zoe will bring fresh perspectives for creating inspiring, welcoming and comfortable spaces of worship and study.”
While McCoon’s rabbinical career started with a question, she’s pondering her tenure in the same fashion.
“What does the future of Temple Beth Torah look like?” she asked. “I think that’s a lot of the work that we’re going to be doing together, and I’m really looking forward to it.”