Shockwaves echoed across the Reform movement when New York’s Central Synagogue announced on April 27, 2021, that it had hired law firm Morgan Lewis to investigate allegations of inappropriate behavior against its former senior rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman.
Three women, including one who was an underage teenager at the time of the alleged incidents, have accused Zimmerman of sexually predatory behavior in the 1970s and 1980s.
Zimmerman’s career extended to the highest levels of the Reform movement. He was senior rabbi at Central Synagogue from 1972-1985, and served as president of both the Central Conference of American Rabbis (1993-1995) and the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, the movement’s seminary (1996-2000).
Zimmerman’s purported victims had spoken with the CCAR in 2000, which led to his resignation from his leadership role at the seminary, according to a letter sent to Central Synagogue congregants by its current senior rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, and the synagogue’s senior leadership.
When the CCAR determined he had relationships that violated the organization’s rules, he was suspended from the CCAR for a minimum of two years.
The CCAR did not publicly provide details of the misconduct leading to his resignation allowing Zimmerman to later serve as vice president of the Birthright Israel program, vice president of the United Jewish Communities’ Jewish Renaissance and Renewal, and rabbi at the Jewish Center of the Hamptons until he retired in 2017.
On April 30, 2021, the Union of Reform Judaism sent an email to its members outlining the steps it had taken to “confront unacceptable behavior and create internal structures to prevent misconduct and foster safe and equitable environments,” and announcing it also had hired attorneys to conduct an independent investigation of the accusations against Zimmerman.
In a May 6 statement to its members, CCAR President Lewis Kamrass and Chief Executive Officer Rabbi Hara Person said they were committed to transparency while acknowledging that the charges against Zimmerman, as well as the organization’s investigation of those charges, were “deeply troubling,” and that it also had retained attorneys to conduct an investigation.
“Investigations like this take time in order to be done thoroughly and accurately, and we will be careful not to presuppose the outcome,” said Person in an email to the Chronicle, responding to whether the CCAR had protected a bad actor by not alerting members to Zimmerman’s alleged behavior.
“Rabbis who have been expelled or suspended as part of our rigorous ethics process cannot get placed with a congregation through the CCAR,” she said, adding that that “during the pendency of suspension or censure with publication, their names and details of their adjudication are published on our public website.”
In a statement to its members, the Hebrew Union College said its board of governors and administration had engaged an independent organization to undertake a thorough review, and that it also had retained the law firm of Morgan Lewis to investigate complaints of sexual misconduct, harassment or discrimination based on sex.
Reform rabbis in Pittsburgh have begun to internalize and process what Zimmerman’s actions and the various investigations mean for their movement. “This is about accountability but not yet justice,” said Rabbi Barbara Symons of Temple David. “I think putting this into place within all the Reform institutions is about taking steps toward justice, and I think that’s important — to take a look at the structures in place and amend them or start all over. The key is always about transparency and honesty.”
While Temple Sinai Rabbi Keren Gorban acknowledged that the Reform movement was experiencing a moment of reckoning, she said “It’s not different from any other major institution that’s been around for a long time.”
In her 2019 Yom Kippur sermon, titled “The One Where We Are Oppressors,” Gorban spoke about her own #MeToo experience, which occurred when she was 18 at a Reform Jewish overnight camp that employed faculty from Hebrew Union College.
Gorban said her negative experiences didn’t hurt her career significantly but that “more of these stories exist and have yet to be shared publicly.”
Rodef Shalom Rabbi Sharyn Henry said she supports the Women’s Rabbinic Network (WRN) — an organization of Reform female-identified rabbis — in its public statement calling for “accountability” and for the movement’s national arms to commit to reviewing past complaints.
“I believe that for too long the movement, and all of its arms, has been protecting the wrong people and that it’s time to hold perpetrators responsible and accountable,” Henry said.
In addition to sexual harassment and abuse, there are other issues relating to “discrimination, placement and gatekeeping” that will need to be addressed moving forward, Henry added.
Temple Emanuel of South Hills Rabbi Aaron Meyers said it’s time for the Reform movement to both reflect and listen to the voices of those affected. “Intense scrutiny of the systems, processes and individuals who aid, abet, and perpetrate physical and emotional abuse in the Reform movement, and all streams of Judaism, is long overdue,” he said. “This is also a time to center the voices of our amazing female colleagues — to stand with them, to listen to them and to learn from them.”
Members of the WRN have gathered to talk about these issues, share stories and support one another.
“The most important role we can play,” the WRN said in a written statement “is to continue standing by and for our survivors by ensuring that their needs are of primary importance as our community moves to address these issues.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at email@example.com.