When state Sen. Loretta Weinberg (D-37) entered the New Jersey Assembly in 1992, she was the only woman in the group’s Democratic caucus.

It wasn’t always easy.

“If a woman becomes passionate about an issue, they call her a noodge,” she said. “They call a man a leader.”

Also, said Weinberg, “Women don’t ‘hang out’ as much as men. We’re more likely to go home [after a legislative session], while men are more likely go out for dinner or grab a beer.”

Despite such differences and obstacles, Weinberg – who has been involved in public service for more than three decades – would encourage women to enter the political arena.

Sen. Loretta Weinberg PHOTO BY JERRY SZUBIN

“I came from an era where women didn’t run for office,” the state senator recalled. “They did civic activities, stuffing envelopes, running coffee klatches, ringing doorbells,” all of which, she said, she did herself.

When her family moved to Teaneck in the mid-1960s, it was “a time of political action – civil rights, anti-war, women’s rights – and a feeling that we could change things.”

Motivated by the belief “that we could play a part in changing important things in the world around us,” Weinberg, without fully realizing it at the time, started her political journey.

“When we lived in New York, we had trees outside our apartment,” she recalled. Living in Teaneck with two babies (Daniel, born in 1962, and Francine, born in 1963) and “shlepping to Cedar Lane with a double stroller,” she noticed that no trees shaded the route.

“I went to a Town Council meeting and complained,” she said. “It was my first foray into politics.”

That foray blossomed into a mission. Since that first tentative step, Weinberg has served as Bergen County’s Assistant Administrator (1975 to 1985), a member of the Teaneck Township Council (1990-1994), a New Jersey assemblywoman (1992-2005), and now is a state senator.

“I never planned any of this,” she said, adding that “most women in the legislature got started in a similar manner. Some issue,” probably relating to their homes or their families, “got them to go to a government body.”

The playing field, however, is still far from level.

Since 2003 – when Rep. Marge Roukema was succeeded by Scott Garrett in the state’s fifth congressional districts – no woman has served in New Jersey’s 15-member congressional delegation, according to the Center for American Women and Politics/ Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. And while New Jersey has sent five women to the House of Representatives since 1925, it has never elected a woman to the U.S. Senate.

At the state level, women have fared somewhat better: 35 serve in the New Jersey legislature, holding 29.2 percent of the 120 seats and making New Jersey 14th among the 50 states in the percentage of women serving in its legislature.

In addition, in July 2008, 83 women were mayors of New Jersey municipalities in all but one county (Hudson).

On Wednesday, Weinberg will join a roster of women office-holders and political mavens at a forum designed to mobilize and train Jewish women in how to become involved in the political process, whether they choose to run for office themselves or to support other female candidates.

The one-day gathering, “Politics, Power, and Jewish Women,” is a project of the Center for American Women and Politics and sponsored by the Community Relations Committee of United Jewish Communities of MetroWest, Northern New Jersey Region of Hadassah, the Essex County and West Morris Sections of the National Council of Jewish Women, the Women’s Political Caucus of New Jersey, and the New Jersey State Association of Jewish Federations.

Why women?

While it is likely to be quality-of-life issues such as noise or pollution that motivate women to engage with politics, “you see this much less often with men,” said Weinberg, who was born in New York in 1935 and graduated from the University of California with a bachelor of arts degree in history and political science, subsequently completing all coursework for a master of arts degree in public administration from Fairleigh Dickinson University.

“[Men are] more likely to be lawyers or engineers who got into it to build their businesses.”

“I decided to run for the Council in my 50s,” she said. “It seemed to be an appropriate time. The kids were grown. I worked for so many [candidates] who disappointed me, so I decided to try for myself,” she said, adding that “opportunities presented themselves that I hadn’t anticipated.”

In 1992, when then-Assemblyman Bennett Mazur resigned due to poor health, “they considered me because I was on the council and had worked for Bennett. I went into the convention and I won.”

Still, said Weinberg, “it was scary to put my toe into the water.” Each time she ran for office, she said, “I held my breath.”

“Most women don’t think that they’re qualified,” said Sharon Weiner, former mayor of Livingston and president of New Jersey’s Women’s Political Caucus. “They want to be asked to run.”

Weiner, an attorney with Scarinci & Hollenbeck in Lyndhurst, pointed out that the caucus is “New Jersey’s only multi-partisan women’s political organization dedicated to empowering women through involvement in the political process.” The group makes financial contributions to women candidates who support its goals.

Sharon Weiner

“Women have to find the right time in their lives” to engage in politics, said Weinberg, noting that this is becoming more difficult as women, in addition to raising families, are increasingly driven by the economic situation to find paying jobs.

“Politics can be a bruising, nasty business,” she added, pointing out that “women may be more sensitive to seeing their names maligned. You have to develop an ‘arms-length’ attitude. Try not to get emotionally involved.”

It also helps to have a supportive husband, she said, joking that she never let her late husband, Irwin, come to council meetings because she feared he would react if someone said something negative about her.

He needn’t have worried. By her own account, Weinberg has a thick skin.

“I firmly believe that if I haven’t left some group of women troublemakers behind me, then I haven’t made a ripple in the water,” she said.

Throughout her legislative career, Weinberg has introduced and supported dozens of measures targeted primarily to families. Among her other achievements, she sponsored a law to require health insurance companies to pay for at least 48 hours of hospital care for new mothers and their babies; helped establish New Jersey’s Child-Proof Handgun Bill; shaped the autism research funding bill that gives $1 from every New Jersey traffic violation to autism research; fought to enact a law lowering the legal alcohol level to .08 in New Jersey; and sponsored the New Jersey Smoke-Free Air Act, which prohibits smoking in indoor public places and workplaces.

The state senator has also been active in the community, in both Jewish and secular organizations. A longtime member of Temple Emeth in Teaneck, she is a life member of the National Council of Jewish Women and a founding member of Shelter Our Sisters, which helps victims of domestic violence.

Weinberg, a victim of Bernard Madoff’s recently exposed Ponzi scheme, said that, right now, she is particularly engaged in issues dealing with ethics.

“If we don’t clean up politics, we can’t address anything else in a fair, open way,” she said, noting that she had had some “ugly first-hand experience.”

Over the last five years, she said, she has served with both assemblymen and state senators who were indicted, and in some cases convicted, for corruption.

Why Jewish women?

Weinberg spoke positively about the “whole new network for women” that has been created at Rutgers’ Eagleton Institute.

“We take it for granted, but it’s a national resource,” she said, singling out the group’s “Ready to Run” campaign training program for women, “which encourages women to get involved and tells them how do it.”

The Wednesday session, designed specifically for Jewish women – sessions for other ethnic groups have tended to take place on Saturdays – is part of that effort.

According to Weiner, the event is an exercise in “how-to training, creating a network of women in New Jersey who are committed to ensuring that Jewish women are at the decision-making table.”

Designed for women who either want to run for office or simply to support other women who choose to do so, the event is part of the Project on Jewish Women’s Involvement in the Political Process, made possible by a grant from the Jewish Women’s Foundation of New Jersey.

“This training will demystify the political process and enhance skills in fund-raising, public speaking, and campaigning, which are useful for volunteering, board leadership, and advocacy,” said Weiner. “Women supporting women makes the difference. It’s the way female candidates can win.”

“Jewish women must become more involved in the political process to not fall behind Asian, Latino, and African American women who are organizing their power bases, running, and winning,” reads the brochure advertising the event. “When women are at the decision-making table, the agenda changes. When Jewish women hold elected office, they bring with them the specific values of tikkun olam, tzedakah, and the priorities of the Jewish community.”

Weinberg said there is definitely a “Jewish” component to politics. While noting that she didn’t want to sound “chauvinistic,” she suggested that “the values imparted through our religious background are wonderful for being office-holders,” citing Jewish teachings on repairing the world, reaching out to help others less fortunate, and philanthropy.

“These are the ultimate goals of government as well,” she said, noting that young women interested in entering politics might also look into Pam’s List, a Democratic fund-raising group in New Jersey, Emily’s List, a national group that sometimes supports candidates in local races, and the Wish List for Republican Women.

The senator, who said she is proud of mentoring young women new to the political arena, said, “Just make a decision to do it. Reach out to these networks to help you get over your fright,” whether your desire is to serve in government “or as program chair of the PTA.”

“Find a mentor,” she said. “It’s a very Jewish thing to do.”

While Weinberg said she doesn’t know for sure how many Jewish women are serving in government at present, she noted that she gathered recently with other Jewish women elected officials as part of a group called Jewish Women in Network.

According to Weiner, the group was created “to identify and address common issues that are specific to Jewish women in political life.”

“I felt a real kinship,” said Weinberg. “It was almost group therapy. It enabled us to [engage in] honest communication with people who understand where you’re coming from.”