A Dallas Reform synagogue has terminated Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman’s employment and launched an independent review of its past and present practices for reporting misconduct, after a separate probe found credible evidence that Zimmerman had engaged in “sexually predatory behavior” with at least three women.
Zimmerman had resigned as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in 2000 after the Central Conference of American Rabbis found that his personal relationships violated its ethics codes. But the recent revelations raise questions about whether the movement was unaware of the extent of his misconduct or downplayed it, allowing him to return to the rabbinate and to prominent positions in the Jewish world.
Zimmerman was senior rabbi of the Dallas synagogue, Temple Emanu-El, from 1985 to 1996, following his tenure at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue, where the predatory behavior is alleged to have occurred. He returned in 2017 as “ongoing scholar in residence,” according to a letter sent to Emanu-El’s 3,000 member-families on Wednesday, and was listed on the synagogue’s website as teaching classes on kabbalah until the Forward published an article Tuesday detailing the new revelations.
“While we have no indication of misconduct during Rabbi Zimmerman’s tenure,” reads the letter signed by Emanu-El’s senior rabbi, executive director and board president, “we are responsible for acting on the information now available to us.”
“In 2021, we are thankfully in an era of greater transparency and accountability related to matters of sexual misconduct,” the letter continues. “We also recognize that those abused by clergy have not always been supported or believed when they reported the abuse. We pray this has never been the case at Temple Emanu-El, in the past or currently, but we are taking additional steps to make sure that any inappropriate behavior can be safely reported and properly addressed.”
Zimmerman did not return calls from the Forward on Tuesday.
Central Synagogue said in its own congregational letter that it had hired a law firm to look into Zimmerman’s time as its senior rabbi from 1972 to 1985 after Nancy Levy, a former youth group educator now in her 70s, came forward last fall with a story of harassment and abuse. The investigation found that Levy’s story and those of two other women credible and that Zimmerman and invoked Martin Buber’s I/Thou theological framework to justify the relationships.
One relationship began when the victim was 16, according to the lead investigator.
Also on Wednesday, an organization of female Reform rabbis called on the leaders and institutions of their movement — including HUC, CCAR, the Union for Reform Judaism and the American Conference of Cantors — to commit to six concrete steps, including reviewing past complaints; releasing survivors from non-disclosure agreements; and holding “predators and enablers accountable.”
“The Women’s Rabbinic Network has listened for decades as our members have shared stories of abuse, harassment, and silencing at the hands of their teachers, supervisors, co-workers, donors, board members, and congregants,” read the group’s statement. “We know these are not isolated incidents, but rather a pattern throughout our Reform Movement institutions for which those institutions must be held to account.”
The statement said that the movement had “been ordaining and failing” female rabbis for nearly 50 years, adding: “Now is the moment to prove that our future will be different than our past.”
If you have any information about misconduct by Rabbi Zimmerman or other Jewish clergy, or about the CCAR investigation in 2000, please write to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Correction: The original version of this article incorrectly stated the age of a young woman when Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman began a relationship with her. She was 16, not 15, according to the Central Synagogue investigator.