In step with Jerry Appel
By Deb Silverthorn
A day to ourselves? A minute, an hour, a week? Fort Worth resident Jerry Appel has committed a year to himself, to finding his spirit, soul and connections during his self-imposed “Shabbatical.”
Where Torah fits into his life, what being a Jew means to him, how his heart flows of emotional connection to his people are all questions he is searching for the answers to, all answers he is uncovering. Many of them are shared at jerryappel.com.
Taking a hiatus from Texas Christian University, where he’s taught business and intercultural communications, Appel begins each day with a 3-mile walk along the Trinity River, a task that has become a joy after his losing more than 75 pounds in the last two years. He walks until he finds the day’s “just right” space to read, write and study the crossroads of Torah and psychology and what the second half of life can best bring.
“There’s a phenomenon of emerging elderhood, the ‘other side’ of life. I’m in the midst of it and it seemed like a good time to figure it out,” said Appel, 59, whose blog Confessions of a Cowtown Culturalist shares his insights.
Appel is the son of Betty Kessler and Bernie, of blessed memory, and Ellen Appel, and the brother of Arlene (Michael) Kleinberg. Appel was born in Boston; he and his family moved to Fort Worth when he was just 7. His father was a career-long employee of RadioShack, ultimately the company’s chairman and senior vice-president of Tandy Corp.
Appel, with his family now members of Fort Worth’s Beth-El Congregation, was raised at Congregation Ahavath Sholom. The former president of BBYO’s Rubin Gilbert AZA attended Fort Worth Country Day School and graduated from Southwest High School.
A graduate of TCU, with bachelor’s degrees in economics and international business and a master’s in organizational communication, Appel also earned a master’s in counseling psychology from Abilene Christian University and another in cultural psychology at Capella University.
He began his career at American Airlines in corporate communications, then as a psychotherapist at St. Joseph’s Hospital in Fort Worth. He ran a drug abuse program and worked in human resources, then as an underwriter at Allstate Insurance and in the insurance finance department at Merrill Lynch.
“Some people switch jobs; I switch careers. I’ve never been able to get enough education, enough learning — I guess that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing now,” said Appel. “I started teaching diversity training courses at Tarrant County and now I’ve been at TCU for 20 years.”
Appel’s wife Sheril, their daughter Sophie and his son Max are the lights of his life. Appel’s father, Bernie, whose impact touches most aspects of his life, introduced the couple, who married in 2001. Sheril had moved to Fort Worth and came to the Jewish Federation of Fort Worth and Tarrant County applying for a position at its Jewish Education Agency. Bernie was there leading the interviews.
Sheril became executive director and principal of JEA, which included Camp Shalom, Fort Worth Hebrew Day School and Lil Goldman Early Learning Center, and Appel became her husband. The former Sheril Zimmerman, a Houston native with a career as a speech pathologist also under her belt, brings her more than 30 years of experience in the health care arena to her current role as COO at Neurological Recovery Center and NeuroKinetix Clinic.
“I’ve studied Judaism, in different ways, since I was in my 20s. When Dad died, in 2017, he said the legacy that mattered most was that his grandchildren felt a responsibility to better the world,” said Appel. “He’d been to the Orient 90 times, he was shul president and leader of one of the greatest companies — doing for others, that’s what mattered.”
In his time off, Appel has taken his honoring Shabbat to a new level. His Friday afternoons are spent shopping and cooking, baking challah and taking time to fall further in love with his Judaism — what he says is “more passion, than religious.” On Saturday mornings, his daily walk extends to more than double the miles with Sheril by his side.
In recent years, Appel and Beth-El’s Rabbi Brian Zimmerman have built a close friendship: one of parishioner and clergy, one of buddies outside the congregational walls, one that brings all of life together in learning, living and understanding life.
“I’m in awe of what Jerry, with whom I share what is beyond a deep friendship, is doing with this period in his life to explore himself,” said Rabbi Zimmerman. “This journey to learn what kind of person, professional and Jew he is, is something most of us don’t get, or take, the opportunity to follow.
“It’s about constantly going and growing wherever we are in life. For Jerry, that going and growing is absolutely always constant,” said Rabbi Zimmerman. “He truly ‘walks the walk,’ and in doing so, he pushes me. Working together for our community, we’re determined to explore all the tools we can provide to be that sacred space for our people either physically or by resource.”
Appel’s devotion to his synagogue has him bringing his introspection to its people, first as a Sunday school teacher and now in the role of chair of Beth-El’s Lifetime Learning opportunities. Through its programs, classes and events, the Lifetime Learning committee’s goal is to allow adults in the community to learn and experience the heritage, values, theology and language of the Jewish people from a Reform point of view.
“The pandemic happened, we became empty nesters and I’m in that ‘last’ third of life,” said Appel. He explains that life’s thirds are broken into education and youthful exuberance; career and family; and that which becomes legacy.
“I wake up each morning, I say ‘Modeh Ani’ before my feet hit the floor. Luck is when preparation meets opportunity. I know I’m the luckiest man alive,” he says.