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An Important Message From Central Synagogue

April 27, 2021 | General News | Messages From Leadership

This email was sent to the congregation on April 27, 2021.

Dear Fellow Congregant,

We are writing to you today as your Senior Rabbi, Executive Director, and congregational President from a place of communal sadness, anger, shame, and Teshuvah.

Last fall, after Rosh Hashanah, a former congregant approached Rabbi Buchdahl and disclosed that Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, Central’s Senior Rabbi from 1972 to 1985, initiated an inappropriate relationship with her while she was a young religious school teacher and congregant at Central. She indicated that she believed there were other women who had been similarly harmed by Rabbi Zimmerman, and that people at Central at the time were aware of his behavior.

Although the alleged behavior occurred many decades ago, we took action to understand the full breadth of what happened. We engaged Morgan Lewis, a law firm with expertise in this area, to conduct an independent investigation which included interviews with past and present senior staff. To date, three women have come forward and spoken with Morgan Lewis about allegations of sexually predatory behavior by Rabbi Zimmerman in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to the initial complaint, a second woman, whose family were members of Central, shared that Rabbi Zimmerman began an inappropriate relationship with her that included sexual contact while she was an underage teenager and that lasted many years. A third woman shared that Rabbi Zimmerman engaged in an inappropriate sexual relationship over several years that began while she was a student at Hebrew Union College (HUC), our Reform movement seminary, and while Rabbi Zimmerman was both a teacher at HUC and Central’s Senior Rabbi.

We learned that in 2000, the second and third individuals both spoke to the Central Conference of American Rabbis (CCAR), the Reform rabbinic leadership organization, in the context of an ethics charge brought to the CCAR by one of the women. At that point, Rabbi Zimmerman was President of HUC. Following its investigation, the CCAR suspended Rabbi Zimmerman from serving a Reform congregation for no fewer than two years (which we believe ultimately ran until late 2004) and he resigned from his position at HUC. Central Synagogue was never informed by the CCAR of the events that led to Rabbi Zimmerman’s suspension.

After a thorough and independent investigation, which included an interview with Rabbi Zimmerman, our legal team found the women and their respective stories to be credible. Similarly, by virtue of the suspension it imposed, the CCAR found the women who came forward to that organization credible when it investigated Rabbi Zimmerman’s behavior in 2000. In his meeting with Morgan Lewis, Rabbi Zimmerman confirmed certain key facts with regard to the two women who spoke to the CCAR panel, and expressed remorse for the harm he caused.

We are devastated that a member of our clergy could abuse our (or any) pulpit and position of power within our community the way that Rabbi Zimmerman did. According to all three women, Rabbi Zimmerman discussed Martin Buber’s “I and Thou” theology with them as a framework of relationship, and, with two of the women, as divine sanction for his behavior. This was a gross manipulation of his spiritual authority. The women shared the irreversible harm that his behavior caused in their lives, including, for one of them, leaving Judaism completely. And, to this day, each of these three women told us that he has not made Teshuvah with them.

Central Synagogue joins the many religious, corporate, political, and cultural institutions that have had to confront findings of unacceptable behavior by former leaders. And while those who worked alongside Rabbi Zimmerman at Central during and immediately after the time of this behavior told our legal counsel that they had no knowledge of it, we cannot ignore other individuals who described an environment and processes at the time that may have made it difficult to hold a Senior Rabbi accountable for inappropriate behavior, or for individuals to come forward with reports of such behavior.

We have to challenge ourselves as a congregation to speak the truth and to never let any of us be bystanders. Rabbi Buchdahl and our other leaders will have more to say about this in the months to come, and we will discuss with the leadership of the CCAR and HUC how we can do better as a wider community to protect survivors and hold the perpetrators accountable.

We will continue to work with the women who have come forward individually to make Teshuvah on behalf of Central Synagogue and to ensure that they are heard. They have told us that our investigation and this communication are important steps in their healing.

Our decision to share this information is not one that we have taken lightly; even though it is absolutely the right one, it has been extremely difficult. We recognize the significant pain this will cause for many people. However, in making this decision, we are mindful above all of our responsibility to Central, to Judaism, and to the women who have come forward. As our tradition teaches, we cannot shape our future if we ignore our past. We must model how a sacred community treats harmful misconduct, no matter when it happened, with integrity and transparency. We also want to fully understand the scope of the situation. If you or someone you know has something to tell us about Rabbi Zimmerman or anyone else at Central Synagogue, we ask you to please contact our independent legal team at Morgan Lewis at this dedicated email address: [email protected]. The senders of any emails to Morgan Lewis will not be identified to Central Synagogue unless they explicitly give our lawyers permission to do so.

Our Board has determined that, in light of our investigation, it is unacceptable for Rabbi Zimmerman’s tenure to continue to be lauded as part of the Central Synagogue story. Therefore, over the next 60 days, we will examine how we currently present Rabbi Zimmerman on our website, in our archives, and in our physical buildings, and we will make necessary adjustments.

In addition to investigating the allegations regarding Rabbi Zimmerman, our legal counsel at our request also conducted interviews and reviewed our policies and procedures to understand our current culture and practices and to make recommendations. We have made huge steps forward in all respects over the 36 years since Rabbi Zimmerman left our pulpit. The independent review concluded that we have a strong foundation in terms of leadership, structures, and policies. However, we can do even better, and the Board and Synagogue’s professional leadership team have determined to take additional steps with professional guidance. We will share more specifics of these actions in the days ahead.

May we walk forward with humility, repentance, and a determination to never allow the leadership positions of our community to be perverted or misused.

Rabbi Angela Buchdahl, Senior Rabbi

Marcia Caban, Executive Director

Jeremy Fielding, Congregational President

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