A Reform rabbi who ceded the movement’s top seminary post two years ago over a sex scandal has been appointed to head the Jewish identity-building division of United Jewish Communities, the roof body of North American Jewish welfare federations.
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the highest-ranking Reform rabbi ever to be suspended from the pulpit, was named this week as the vice president of UJC’s Jewish Renaissance and Renewal pillar, a division focused on promoting Jewish education, camping and other religious identity-building activities. Zimmerman’s appointment, effective March 1, follows a brief stint at Birthright Israel, from which Zimmerman resigned some four months ago in what Birthright officials say was a cost-cutting measure. Zimmerman headed the North American operations of the Israel-based Birthright for a little more than a year.
With Zimmerman at the helm, the renaissance pillar will now come fully under the control of UJC. It will no longer be managed and staffed by the Jewish Education Service of North America, as it had been since its establishment in 2000. Zimmerman will replace Jonathan Woocher, Jesna’s president and current director of the pillar.
Despite Zimmerman’s checkered history, his new UJC position is raising few eyebrows among federation leaders. In fact, many federation executives are hailing the pick and the pillar’s restructuring as a signal that UJC is increasing the priority of its renaissance arm.
“I think Rabbi Zimmerman is a fabulous choice,” said the executive vice president of the Jewish Federation of Greater Dallas, Gary Weinstein. “His stature and his national visibility and reputation will move the pillar to the front burner of our North American agenda.”
Zimmerman resigned from the presidency of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the Reform rabbinical seminary, after being suspended from the rabbinate for at least two years by the movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis.
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, executive vice president of CCAR, declined to comment on Zimmerman’s new appointment.
But Weinstein said that Zimmerman’s CCAR suspension “won’t have any bearing on his position” at UJC.
The suspension, which has yet to be lifted, came after a seven-member ethics committee found that at some point before beginning his tenure at HUC in 1996, Zimmerman had engaged in inappropriate “personal relationships.”
While federation executives voiced no concerns about the CCAR suspension, some did criticize UJC’s top leadership for not consulting with them about the changes being implemented at the pillar.
“This was not discussed among the owners of UJC, meaning the federations,” said Todd Stettner, executive director of the Jewish Federation of Greater Kansas City. Stettner claimed the transformation was not discussed with federations at UJC’s board meeting in Miami last month and that he was given no explanation as to why Jesna was phased out of the pillar.
But the president and CEO of UJC, Stephen Hoffman, told the Forward that before the restructuring he had consulted with officers of UJC’s board of trustees, the outgoing and incoming chairs of the pillar and Jesna officials. “We have 156 member federations,” Hoffman said. “I don’t intend to consult with each and every one of them.”
Hoffman told the Forward that Jesna’s alliance with UJC was always meant to be a temporary measure until the newly-formed roof body, established in 2000, could staff the pillar on its own.
UJC was created through a merger of the Council of Jewish Federations, the United Jewish Appeal and the smaller United Israel Appeal. It serves as a central coordinating and service body for local federations.
Hoffman said Zimmerman’s congregational and national leadership experience makes him “particularly well suited” for the job at a pillar geared toward increasing alliances between federations and synagogues. “I look to rabbis as key colleagues in the renaissance agenda,” Hoffman said.
At a time when UJC’s budget is under increased scrutiny from local federations, Hoffman vowed that he would not decrease funding to the pillar and may in fact expand it. Although uncertain about the future of the five staffers currently employed under the pillar, Hoffman said UJC and Jesna are in discussion over which programs Jesna would inherit from the pillar. One initiative that might be passed on is the Continental Council for Jewish Day School Education, a forum for addressing key issues affecting day schools, according to the pillar’s Web page, which is currently housed on Jesna’s Web site.
Barry Shrage, president of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies of Greater Boston, commended Zimmerman’s appointment but noted that the pillar’s work has just begun: “The question is are they really going to establish a clear direction and pursue it? Will the pillar make Jewish education in general a much higher priority for federations? Either UJC will do it, or it will become irrelevant.”