‘This was no coverup’: Inside the investigation of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman
When Rabbi Sheldom Zimmerman was suspended by the Central Conference of American Rabbis in 2000 and simultaneously stepped down as president of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, even many insiders at the Reform movement’s flagship institutions had no idea of the severity or even the real nature of his offense.
The official word from the ethics committee was inappropriate “personal relationships.” But very few people knew that one involved a congregant at Manhattan’s Central Synagogue who he started seducing when she was a teenager.
“I didn’t know, and I never put things together that it involved a sexual encounter of any kind,” Rabbi Rifat Sonsino, who was the editor of the rabbinic group’s quarterly journal, recalled in a recent interview. “That was never revealed to us at that time.”
Now, after a new Central Synagogue investigation found that Zimmerman engaged in “sexually predatory behavior,” there is something of a reckoning afoot not just for the rabbi but for the Reform movement. The CCAR, HUC, the Union for Reform Judaism and a Dallas synagogue where Zimmerman worked after Central are all conducting their own probes into his behavior or their policies around reporting sexual misconduct.
Many are questioning whether the CCAR covered up serious misdeeds of a major leader, allowing him to continue to serve in Jewish leadership roles for two decades. While Zimmerman’s rabbinic privileges were suspended for two years, he quickly became vice president of Birthright Israel — an organization focused on young people — and later returned to synagogue leadership.
But interviews with those who weighed the evidence at the time or with knowledge of the 2000 investigation deny that there was any concerted effort to treat Zimmerman gingerly. Instead, they describe a combination of stringent privacy rules surrounding ethics investigations; ignorance of the young age of the victim; and pre-#MeToo mindsets to explain what now seems to critics like a relative slap on the wrist. Terms like “grooming” were not common parlance in discussions about an adult’s predations on a girl.
“I don’t believe we saw ourselves as in any way sweeping anything under the rug or hiding anything,” said one person who was a part of CCAR’s leadership at the time, and who was present at the board meeting where the suspension vote happened. “This was no cover up.”
After a woman made a formal complaint to the ethics committee in the summer of 2000, an investigatory panel of two rabbis and a federal judge reviewed the details of the complaint, interviewed the woman and possibly Zimmerman, and put together a report for the ethics committee. That ethics committee of seven people then reviewed the report and came up with a recommendation: to suspend Zimmerman from membership at the CCAR for two years.
CCAR’s 10-member board then voted nearly unanimously that winter to accept the recommendation. For the period of his suspension, Zimmerman could not work at institutions associated with the Reform movement, so he had to resign as the president of Hebrew Union College.
Three people with knowledge of the probe, the board vote or both spoke to the Forward on the condition of anonymity because the proceedings were private. A spokesperson for the CCAR, Tamar Anitai, declined to provide the names of the members of the ethics committee that considered Zimmerman’s transgressions or the report that was presented to the board, or to confirm or deny details that others provided to the Forward.
Two members of the panel appointed by the ethics committee to investigate Zimmerman’s behavior, Rabbi Elka Abrahmson and Rabbi Bernard Mehlman, did not respond to multiple requests for comment. The third member, Judge Geraldine Mund, could not be reached for comment. Charles A. Kroloff, then-president of the CCAR, and Norman Cohen, then-provost at Hebrew Union College who served as acting president after Zimmerman’s suspension there, both declined to comment. Zimmerman also could not be reached for comment.
Rabbi Hara Person, the current chief executive of the CCAR, did not respond to requests for comment, nor did Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who was then president of the Union for Reform Judaism. Several other recent past members of the CCAR ethics committee or the board either did not respond to requests for comment or declined to comment.
The hand-wringing and soul-searching within the Reform movement at this moment in some ways echoes the reverberations of the sexual-abuse scandal in the Catholic Church two decades ago. It’s one thing to discover that rabbinic leaders engaged in serious misconduct, but quite another to consider whether trusted institutions mishandled the situation.
“This is the moment for our movement and its institutions to take responsibility,” Rabbi Mary Zamore, head of the Women’s Rabbinic Network, a Reform group, said in a statement, “beginning by recognizing the painful truth that the institutions that have been charged with shaping, organizing, and modeling justice and ethical behavior for the clergy of our movement have instead enabled and perpetrated deep harm.”
A reformed process
The investigation into Zimmerman began during the summer of 2000, when a woman met with Rabbi Sanford Ragins, then head of the CCAR’s ethics committee, to share information about a sexual relationship she had had with Zimmerman when he was working at Central Synagogue in the 1970s and 1980s.
This woman is one of at least three whose stories of abuse were found credible by the independent investigation recently conducted by a law firm hired by Central; she was 16 when the relationship began in 1970 and 17 when the rabbi first began to fondle and kiss her, according to the new investigation.
At the time of the original complaint in 2000, Zimmerman was president of HUC-JIR and past president of the CCAR. The accusations were serious, and the accused was one of the Reform movement’s most respected leaders.
In some ways, the woman’s timing was fortuitous. The seven-member ethics committee had just revised its procedures to ensure that what many saw as an old boys’ club that protected problematic rabbis would protect them no more.
She brought forth a formal complaint, said one person with direct knowledge of the probe, and most members of the committee were shocked and pained to hear of the allegations. But one female rabbi on the ethics committee at the time had heard of another allegation of sexual misconduct by Zimmerman. That second allegation, said the person with knowledge of the probe, ultimately informed the punishment.
The ethics committee contacted Zimmerman. After he acknowledged at least one of the relationships, the committee put together an investigatory panel.
A person with knowledge of the situation said that the members of this panel were Abrahamson, who is now president of the Wexner Foundation; Mehlman, now a senior scholar at Temple Israel of Boston; and Mund.
Exactly what this panel did is unclear, though several sources said the members definitely interviewed Zimmerman and perhaps the complainant. The panel brought a report to the ethics committee, which decided to recommend that the CCAR board suspend Zimmerman for two years.
One person familiar with the board’s discussions regarding the suspension said Zimmerman was invited to appear in front of the board and declined.
The board of 10 people voted nearly unanimously in favor of the suspension in December; a person close to the situation said there was one abstention.
“If not totally unanimous, it was certainly the consensus,” said one person who was present at the meeting.
Age is more than a number
People present at the board meeting and those close to the probe had conflicting memories of the extent to which the victim’s age was discussed.
One person said they remembered a member of the board asking about how the victim’s age would factor into the punishment, at which point a lawyer advising the committee said that the statute of limitations on the case had expired and that it was therefore not relevant to the CCAR’s process.
Another person said they did not remember clearly whether or not the victim’s age was mentioned at the meeting where the vote took place.
“I don’t remember that he was accused of having a physical relationship with a 17-year-old,” said the person. “He may have been, but I don’t remember that.”
The CCAR has recently hired a firm to do its own investigation into the 2000 probe, which will likely yield more details about what information the ethics committee presented to the board. It is possible that members of the board either did not know or did not fully understand that Zimmerman, at that point in his 40s, had a sexual relationship with a minor.
“It was clear that it was crossing serious boundaries,” said a person who was present for the vote. “A 45-year-old rabbi having an affair with a 42-year-old congregant is serious and would have gotten sanctioned and could have gotten at least a censure, if not a suspension. But this was more than that.”
Word (sometimes) travels
Despite the vagueness of the stated reason, the suspension shocked the Jewish world at the time, and the committee and the board thought they had done a good job holding an immensely powerful leader to account.
One person with knowledge of the situation said the complainant sent a letter of thanks to the ethics committee regarding the decision.
Some people in the Reform movement were angry at the time, deeming the suspension too harsh — perhaps because there was no public acknowledgment of the extent of Zimmerman’s transgressions.
The CCAR’s policy, then and now, is to keep the identities of victims, witnesses and complainants confidential. The CCAR started keeping a public list of rabbis expelled from the conference — along with the clause of the ethics code they violated — in 2017. Before that, the list was only distributed to members of the CCAR and “to the Reform Jewish community.” The list now shows a list of rabbis whose authority is currently suspended as well as those expelled, but it’s not clear whether that also began in 2017 or at a later point.
The CCAR’s Code of Ethics was amended in March of this year to say that “any violation” of the section regarding sexual relationships “or any section of this Code of Ethics that involves minors is considered to be especially egregious.” Now, the list indicates whether ethics violations included sexual relations with minors by noting if the rabbis breached that new portion of the code.
People close to the probe also told the Forward that at the time of the complaint, they were informed that closed-door meetings about ethics concerns were the policy and that they were not supposed to comment on individual cases. Zimmerman’s case, they said, did not receive any special treatment.
Much of the Reform world assumed that Zimmerman’s suspension was due to a consensual extramarital affair. One person close to the process said those involved did not feel they could “correct the record” to share the true extent to which he had abused his power and violated boundaries. The rabbi could have revealed the truth, this person said, but “chose not to and allowed that narrative to take place.”
Before he could be reinstated after his suspension, Zimmerman underwent a psychological evaluation, said people close to the probe.
The CCAR currently uses a provider called Kenwood Psychological Services to perform such evaluations. It’s not clear if Zimmerman went to the same provider, though the CCAR was using Kenwood as early as 2004, according to the earliest available capture of the list of clients on the provider’s website. Kenwood did not respond to a request for comment.
Hindsight is 20/20
The statement issued by the Women’s Rabbinic Network after the Forward reported on Central Synagogue’s findings of “sexually predatory behavior” was scathing, and went far beyond Zimmerman’s case to accuse the Reform movement’s institutions of perpetuating and enabling harm.
“We have used every internal avenue available to us to push our Reform Movement to live up to its stated values, address these issues directly, and create safe, respectful Jewish communities for all,” said the statement. “In return, we have received unfulfilled promises and repeated attempts to sideline us, our demands for accountability and justice, and most importantly, the needs of survivors.”
People close to the probe conveyed appreciation that Central Synagogue, the CCAR, the Union for Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College, and Temple Emanu-El in Dallas — where Zimmerman had until very recently been teaching a kabbalah class as a scholar in residence — are all now reexamining Zimmerman’s behavior and reviewing their own sexual misconduct policies.
Two people close to the probe said they did not have regrets about how it was handled, and expressed some resignation to the fact that their work would be scrutinized under new sets of expectations in a world that is much more cognizant of power imbalances and issues of consent.
Perhaps both things can be true: that the process was rigorous and fair under the standards of the time but also that those standards were inadequate.
“The idea of suspending from membership the president of the Hebrew Union College was seen as an extraordinarily severe punishment,” said a person present for the vote. “In hindsight, was it severe enough? That’s an open question.”