Facing sex accusations, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman quits

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NEW YORK — Reform rabbis across the country are reeling from the news that one of Reform Judaism's most respected professionals has resigned amid accusations of sexual misconduct.

Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, 58, quit his post as president of the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion on Monday, shortly after being suspended from the Reform movement's rabbinic association.

Zimmerman is the highest-ranking rabbi ever to be suspended from the Central Conference of American Rabbis.

The suspension, resulting from an inquiry by a seven-member CCAR ethics committee, prohibits Zimmerman from serving as a rabbi in any Reform temple or institution for at least two years.

According to an HUC statement, the suspension results from Zimmerman's "personal relationships" before he became president in 1996.

Zimmerman did not return phone calls seeking comment.

Reform officials said Zimmerman violated guidelines concerning "sexual ethics and sexual boundaries," but the ethics committee — citing a policy of not commenting on individual cases — will not disclose the precise nature of his misconduct.

Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Reform movement's Union of American Hebrew Congregations, said the committee's inquiry came in response to a complaint filed earlier this year. Zimmerman could have contested the decision, but chose not to, said Yoffie.

"He recognized that he made a mistake and accepted responsibility for that," said Yoffie, who does not sit on the committee and said he does not know the details of Zimmerman's misconduct.

"Obviously, a suspension of two years indicates this is a serious matter," said Yoffie.

Zimmerman, who is known by his colleagues as "Shelly," was the past president of the CCAR, the body from which he has been suspended. He was widely admired not only for his administrative work in the college, but for being a spokesman for the Reform movement.

Zimmerman is widely known by "the force of his personality and his ability to present the principles and commitments of Reform Judaism in a popular and compelling way," Yoffie said.

The news hit students and colleagues in the Reform movement hard.

"Shelly is one of the great American rabbis," said Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin, of the Community Synagogue of Port Washington in Long Island, N.Y.

"He has been a leader in this movement for three decades," he added.

One former student who considered Zimmerman her mentor, said, that this move "feels like a death."

"He was a brilliant teacher, and was the single most helpful person in teaching us to find meaning in a text and to communicate it to people," said this rabbi, who asked not to be identified.

In the past five years, the CCAR's ethics committee and guidelines on sexual misconduct have been strengthened and enforcement more aggressive, say people familiar with the process.

Rabbi Paul Menitoff, the executive vice president of the CCAR, said there have been about 35 cases — not all concerning sexual misconduct — brought before the ethics committee in the past five years. Inquiries in these cases involve interviews with both the accuser, accused and other sources when relevant.

After evaluating each case, the committee votes either to dismiss the charge or take one of the following disciplinary actions: reprimand, censure, censure with publication in the CCAR newsletter, suspension or expulsion, said Menitoff, who is a non-voting member of the committee.

Three rabbis have been suspended in the past five years, Menitoff said.

Zimmerman has been credited with rebuilding HUC's faculty, and under his tenure the college began ordaining rabbis on the West Coast, as well as in New York and Cincinnati.

Before assuming the HUC presidency, Zimmerman served as senior rabbi of Temple Emanu-El in Dallas and assistant rabbi of Central Synagogue in New York. Ordained in 1970, he was president of the CCAR from 1993 to 1995.

HUC appointed its provost, Norman Cohen, to serve as acting president.