NEW YORK, April 5 (JTA) A rabbi recently suspended from the Reform movement’s rabbinic organization because of sexual impropriety has been hired to a top position by a program that sends thousands of young Jews on free trips to Israel.
Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who resigned as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in December, will become executive vice president of Birthright Israel USA, Inc., based in New York.
He was recruited for the position by Michael Steinhardt, the hedge fund manager-turned-philanthropist who co-founded the Birthright program.
Zimmerman’s hire is raising some eyebrows in the Jewish community, though many leading figures praised the appointment.
Steinhardt, for example, said he is “extraordinarily thrilled” to have Zimmerman on staff.
Charles Bronfman, another major philanthropist and Birthright co- founder, called Zimmerman a “terrific, terrific catch for Birthright.
“He is a dynamic educator and leader whose talents will be a great blessing for Birthright Israel,” Bronfman said.
Others in the Jewish community feel less blessed.
Susan Weidman Schneider, editor of the feminist Jewish magazine Lilith, said, “Although the specific nature of Zimmerman’s actions have not been made public,” his hire “seems to repeat a pattern in Jewish life where male rabbis known to have transgressive behaviors in their past have not often suffered professionally for it.”
The appointment comes on the heels of another controversy surrounding the program: the fact that two of Birthright’s top lay leaders wrote pardon letters on behalf of financier Marc Rich, who gave $5 million to the organization.
It also comes at a time when rabbis and Jewish professionals are in sharp demand.
Zimmerman led the HUC from 1996 until last December, when he resigned after being suspended for a minimum of two years from the Reform movement’s Central Conference of American Rabbis on the recommendation of its ethics committee.
The CCAR never disclosed full details of the case leading to Zimmerman’s suspension, under which he is not permitted to serve as a congregational rabbi.
However, officials said it had to do with “personal relationships” before Zimmerman became president of the HUC that violated guidelines concerning “sexual ethics and sexual boundaries.”
His resignation shocked many in the Reform world, where Zimmerman was a popular and respected leader known for his abilities as a spokesman, educator and administrator.
According to several sources including Birthright Israel officials it is believed that Zimmerman had an extramarital affair with a congregant more than 15 years ago, while he was rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York.
However, CCAR officials who reviewed the case, which was spurred by a complaint from an individual, have refused to confirm or deny the reports.
Zimmerman refused to be interviewed for this story. He issued a statement Thursday thanking Bronfman and Birthright for their support.
Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the CCAR’s executive vice president and a member of the ethics committee that recommended Zimmerman’s suspension, declined to discuss the case, saying only that Zimmerman is “very talented, and he’ll contribute significantly to the development” of Birthright.
Despite Zimmerman’s high profile and the notoriety of his suspension it made The New York Times and several other major dailies Birthright actively recruited him for the job.
Steinhardt, who first approached Zimmerman, said he knows Zimmerman from his days at Central Synagogue, where Steinhardt was a member.
Steinhardt said he is “not in the slightest” concerned about the fact that the CCAR suspended Zimmerman for sexual misconduct.
“From all that I knew, it seemed like a remarkably harsh response to an event that occurred more than 15 years ago,” Steinhardt said.
Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations and an executive committee member of the CCAR, said Zimmerman “is a good choice for Birthright, and I think he’ll do an excellent job.”
“On the one hand, I’m supportive of the CCAR and their process and have every reason to believe they’ve handled it appropriately, but I’m not prepared to jump from that to assume that therefore Rabbi Zimmerman, who’s an enormously talented individual, should not be able to contribute elsewhere in the Jewish world,” Yoffie said.
Yoffie recently criticized Birthright for accepting money from Rich. The UAHC is one of many organizations that send young people to Israel under Birthright’s auspices.
Richard Joel, president of Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life, which is Birthright’s largest trip provider, said he supports the appointment as long as Zimmerman doesn’t present himself as a rabbinic role model.
“I don’t think his appointment to this position is making any kind of statement mitigating any kind of improper acts,” Joel said. “He has an option to say, because of the adverse publicity, ‘I’m going to disappear from the public scene and find work that will keep me as a private citizen.’ Is that the only course open to someone like Shelly Zimmerman, who’s young and talented? Or are there appropriate positions where he can really add value to the Jewish public sphere without necessarily proferring himself as a role model of everything?”
Joel headed an independent commission last year investigating the Orthodox Union’s handling of allegations that a high-ranking rabbi employed with its youth group had sexually harassed and molested scores of teenagers. No one considers Zimmerman’s alleged misconduct to be of the same gravity, Joel said.
“He’s not ministering to a congregation and not speaking on behalf of any particular movement, dogma or sense of principles,” Joel said. “He’s dealing with one of the most basic of issues using Israel as a trigger for promoting Jewish identity.”
Marlene Post, Birthright’s North American chair, said Zimmerman was selected for his academic, administrative and leadership credentials, and will not be in direct contact with Birthright participants.
“The other issues whatever they are were things that we felt would not directly affect Birthright,” Post said.
Rabbi Shira Stern, a former co-coordinator of the CCAR’s Women’s Rabbinic Network, said she does not have a problem with Zimmerman’s new role.
“He needs to do his own teshuvah,” she said, using the Hebrew term for repentance. “But preventing him from working is not a solution. I fully believe that people need to make restitution to those they’ve harmed, but I don’t believe in any respect that his appointment to Birthright would be inappropriate.”
Weidman Schneider of Lilith rejected the notion that a professional at Birthright Israel should be held to a laxer moral standard than the president of HUC or a congregational rabbi.
“Since the goal of Birthright is to introduce young people to the highest and most complete participation in Jewish life, it’s obvious that the same high moral standards should apply for those leaders as well,” she said.
Rabbi Arthur Gross Schaefer, a law professor and spiritual leader of two synagogues in Santa Barbara, Calif., has written extensively on rabbinic misconduct. He declined to comment on Zimmerman’s specific case, but said the demands of a new high-profile job can prevent a rabbi guilty of misconduct from doing the soul-searching necessary for repentance.
“As Rambam put it, sometimes you have to earn a new name,” Gross Schafer said. “And you don’t earn a new name overnight.”
Marcia Cohn Spiegel, who also has written on rabbinic sexual misconduct, said she is friends with Zimmerman and is uncertain about his alleged misconduct.
However, she said, it “would have been more appropriate for him to back off for a while. To put him in this position so quickly is indiscreet.”