Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman has been elected by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion’s search committee to be the Reform seminary’s next president.
In what the search committee’s chairman described as “a very, very, very close vote,” Zimmerman was selected over Rabbi Peter Knobel on July 26. The college’s full board of governors is expected to approve the Dallas rabbi as president when it meets in October.
When Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk retires from the college’s presidency, at an as- yet undetermined time, Zimmerman will take the helm of an institution with campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Los Angeles and Jerusalem.
Zimmerman is the last of the new, young heads of the Reform movement’s three central institutions to be selected. The other tow are Rabbi Eric Yoffie, who is president-elect of the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, and Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the recently hired executive vice president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis.
They will be leading a movement which is in the process of redefining itself as something very different than it once was.
“The old question today is `How do we take modern people who happened to be Jewish and bring them to a living and loving and caring encounter with Torah?”
Zimmerman, a long-time Reform pulpit rabbi and the father of a son who is a Reform rabbi in Maryland, is an 11th generation rabbi. He was raised as an Orthodox Jew.
He describes himself as “very committed to observance.”
In his final interview with the 16-member search committee, he was asked: What changes would you make at the college?
Zimmerman’s answer, according to Stanley Gold, the chairman of the search committee, was: “Torah, Torah, Torah.”
When asked by the Jewish Telegraphic Agency what his biggest challenge at the college will be, he said, “Reforming Jews, bringing them home to Torah,” though he quickly qualified his response, adding “not in an Orthodox sense.”
“I want to have my people base their lives in a Torah tradition which is dynamic and significant,” he said.
Zimmerman has long experience as a national leader in the Reform movement; he was president of the denomination’s rabbinic arm, the Central Conference of Americans Rabbis, for two years beginning in 1993.
For the last decade the Toronto native has worked as the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas, and was formerly the rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York City.
His close connection to the working rabbinate was regarded as an asset by the selection committee, said Stanley Gold, who also is the chairman of the college’s board of governors.
“The way to get to participating, active, committed Jews is through their rabbis,” Gold said. “That’s going to be a big plus,” said Gold.