When I read the allegations against the Reform Movement’s Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, I felt exhausted. How many more #MeToo stories can there be? The answer seems to be: Too many to count.
The story is all too nauseatingly familiar. Once again we find that a man of learning and authority, respected in his community and beyond, is accused of abusing his power, grooming young women for sexual relations and that the organizations and agencies in place to censure and rebuke have instead covered up and scurried on, hiding the details under the rug along with all the other dirt.
But this one scandal felt different. I’ve never known any of the perpetrators before. And I felt dismayed, betrayed, and angry.
Zimmerman, who had been the senior rabbi at New York’s Central Synagogue at the time the allegations took place, headed Temple Emanu El in Dallas, Texas from 1985 to 1996. This was the congregation I grew up in, where I attended Hebrew school and where I became a bat mitzvah. It was a fusty place then. A hakafah at Simchat Torah was solemn and distant. Joy isn’t a word that readily comes to mind when I think of the type of Judaism practiced there.
But that was before Rabbi Zimmerman entered the picture. He came a year after I had graduated college. And although I was back living in Dallas, I was only tenuously connected to Temple Emanu El through my parents and High Holiday services.
I was lost in a post-college malaise, unsure of what to do with my fancy liberal arts degree and unhappy in the job that I had. I was also lost to Judaism, angry about the stunted role of women in public ritual, and turned off by the lack of feeling in the services I had experienced. I didn’t feel like therapy was the answer but knew I needed help sorting myself out.
My parents suggested that I go see their new rabbi. They enjoyed his sermons; he had brought a sense of vitality and warmth to a congregation, shaking it up and inspiring its members to be active and committed to both the synagogue and the broader community. I wasn’t thrilled at the idea, I mean, I was having a problem with Judaism. How was a rabbi going to help with that? But I guess I recognized that I needed some guidance, or my parents were very persuasive.
So I went.
I remember walking into Rabbi Zimmerman’s office and being overwhelmed by the wall of books. I’m no stranger to walls of books — I’m from a Jewish home and almost everyone I knew growing up was Jewish. Books were everywhere. But the shelves beckoned with riches. We sat politely and professionally facing each other. Rabbi Zimmerman listened to me. We argued and talked. I enjoyed the conversation. I spoke of wanting to find a way to write for a living but not feeling confident enough to do anything so ambitious or grand as to write a book. I told him I was torn between that side of me and the part that preferred making jewelry, but again, I did not have the confidence to run a business making and selling my own creations. I described how as a woman I was fed up with my religion. I still could not get over how shocked I was to discover the deepest veins of anti-egalitarianism; that the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary was still seating men and women on oppositive sides of the aisles when I attended High Holiday services while in college. It was the 80s! Weren’t we beyond this?
He seemed to really hear me and to understand where I was coming from, and not just on the Jewish questions. But it was on those where he truly helped. He suggested Judith Plaskow’s Standing Again at Sinai, and lent me his copy of Susan Weideman Schneider’s resource book, Jewish and Female. I was so taken with that book that I ordered a copy for myself before returning his.
We met a few more times and that was that. I sorted myself out, more or less, and ended up going to graduate school in journalism in Chicago. I landed in North Carolina with a fiancé and when I got married in Dallas a few years later, Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman officiated.
I tell this not as a way to excuse Zimmerman for what he’s being accused of by at least three other women, one of whom was a teen at the time. I am saddened and disgusted that someone who I respected and admired would hurt other women in this way.
It angers me that when allegations first came to light about Zimmerman 21 years ago, the Central Conference of American Rabbis suspended him and he lost his position as head of Hebrew Union College. The CCAR appears to have covered up the allegations, leaving us with a vague sense that whatever was going on was at least consensual. I remember my relief at the time. I had so wanted these allegations to not be true, to just go away, because I respected and liked Zimmerman so much. I remember feeling relieved when it seemed that it was just an inappropriate affair that had taken place.
But clearly, this isn’t the case, or it wouldn’t be coming up. Again.
The script of Zimmerman’s downfall seems to repeat itself almost daily. The word “consensual” continues to mean one thing to victims and nothing at all to perpetrators — whether we are talking about former presidents, the biographer of Phillip Roth, or my former rabbi. And the institutions meant to protect us, instead, protect them.
Zimmerman failed everyone who trusted him — these women, his family, his congregations, the Jewish community, my family, me.