Birthright hires ex-HUC president despite sex scandal

NEW YORK — 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 cofounder, 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 was covered in 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.

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.