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Letter | My beloved rabbi was accused of sexual abuse. Now what?

To the editor,

My heart is breaking, because Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, this week accused of “sexually predatory behavior,” is my beloved rabbi and teacher, a mentor who helped me on the road to my career as a rabbi. (“Reform Rabbinic giant disciplined for inappropriate relationships now accused of ‘sexually predatory behavior.’”)

As a congregant at Central Synagogue in the mid 1980s, I was witness to Shelly’s charisma, the extraordinary power he had to awaken people to Judaism’s richness and glory, and the many lives he changed for the better through his teaching and encouragement.

Since the advent of the #MeToo Movement, the idea that sexual predators must be rooted out and appropriately punished has gained broad approval within some circles of society. I agree with this sentiment. Preying upon those who are unable to defend themselves is despicable.

However, what happens when that predator is someone you love, someone who has done you good?

That, in a nutshell, is the highly conflicted emotional space in which I find myself with regard to Rabbi Zimmerman. I truly love him. The behavior alleged by the women who have spoken out — and whom I believe — is truly awful. I feel as though I’ve been tricked or brainwashed into believing something that is not true: that my rabbi is incapable of committing the actions of which he is accused.

When the first accusations against Rabbi Zimmerman were made public in 2000, I was deeply saddened, but I made excuses for him and was a loyal defender. I believed that there was more to the story that would exonerate him, were the whole truth known. I was delighted when he was reinstated by the CCAR and subsequently took a prestigious pulpit on Long Island.

I now look back at that period and think, “How could I have been so clueless?”

In the mid-80s, Rabbi Zimmerman led a group of intergenerational congregants, in which I was included, in developing a new, more traditional approach to Reform Shabbat observance. It was a transformational experience for many of us. A number of older members of that group have passed away in recent years. I’m glad they are spared the pain of seeing this latest sad chapter in the life of their beloved rabbi.

Some of us are not so lucky. We must learn to live with the dissonance of our love for the man who nurtured us and our deep condemnation of deeds that so deeply scarred others.

I have three prayers to offer:

To the victims of Rabbi Zimmerman’s abuse: May the process of sharing your pain and grief give you whatever comfort and healing it is possible for you to attain.

To Rabbi Zimmerman: I pray that the Holy One of Blessing may guide you toward reconciliation and a teshuva that is healing for you and for those you have hurt.

To those of us who are caught in the middle, who both love and condemn: May we learn to live with both feelings, remembering and honoring the good while holding righteous anger for the bad behavior.

Rabbi Dr. Jo David

Rabbi Dr. Jo David is a writer, teacher, interfaith counselor and life cycle officiant in private practice living in New York City. She was ordained by the Academy for Jewish Religion and holds a Dr. of Ministry Degree from New York Theological Seminary in Multi-faith Engagement.

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