Rabbi Sidney Zimelman marks 90th birthday
Photo: Fort Worth Magazine/Alex Lepe
Vivian and Rabbi Sidney Zimelman. On Saturday, Jan. 28, 2023, at a Kiddush luncheon, Congregation Ahavath Sholom will honor Rabbi Zimelman on the occasion of his 90th birthday.

Ahavath Sholom celebrates ‘5 times chai’ at Jan. 28 Kiddush luncheon

By Deb Silverthorn

Ninety years, five times chai, will be celebrated for Rabbi Sidney Zimelman when he’s honored at a birthday Kiddush luncheon after morning services on Saturday, Jan. 28, at Congregation Ahavath Sholom in Fort Worth.

“What a life it has been,” said Zimelman, who was born Jan. 19, 1933. “So many brachas sewn together. It’ll be very special to share this time with my whole family and more whose friendships I treasure.”

He was the third son born to Ida and Hazzan Samuel Zimelman, in Lomazy, Poland — a shtetl of about 1,000 Jews, then half of the town’s population. With the rise of Hitler, the family tried to immigrate to the United States. Unable to do so, they were sponsored by strangers, through a family connection, and Zimelman, his parents and brothers Milton and Ralph traveled via the HMS Batory to Halifax when he was 5. Younger brothers Sol and Paul (later known as the Brothers Zim), who were born in Canada, carried on the family lineage of hazzanim.

The Zimelmans moved to Portland, Maine. At 13, the future Rabbi Zimelman was sent to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York, to study at Yeshiva and Mesivta Torah Vodaath. Zimelman would sneak out to art classes on the Lower East Side, where he learned techniques he’d use later on in stunning creations including the designs and calligraphy for the ketubot for his daughters and grandchildren. While his rabbis didn’t approve when they learned of his going to the art classes, he was chosen to create the graduating yearbook cover.

Zimelman then went to Yeshiva University RIETS, where he studied under prestigious teachers, including Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik. Because he’d already achieved such a high level of education, he was admitted to Rabbi Soloveitchik’s three-year smicha (ordination) program. After completion, he decided to become a Conservative rabbi and to attend the Jewish Theological Seminary.

“I had lived, learned and trained in Orthodoxy and I still live that way,” said Zimelman, who earned a master’s degree in his first year at JTS, then completed a Talmudic fellowship. “I was impressed by much of the Conservative movement, and believed I could share it. I’m proud to have done that through so many avenues.”

After graduation, in 1962 Zimelman enlisted in the U.S. Air Force and served as chaplain at Yokota Air Base, Tachikawa Airfield and Wakkanai Air Station in Japan. His active duty brought many unique opportunities including his delivering the eulogy for President John F. Kennedy, for all service units of the Pacific Region. His Oral History Project interview is part of the Dallas Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza’s online collection (emuseum.jfk.org/objects/38332).

In 1966, after a short-lived marriage, Zimelman was introduced to Vivian, then a widow. “We took a leap, we just knew,” he said. “We came together, and we were blessed.”

“Our lives are so intertwined, we were raised so much alike and we just are a match,” said Vivian. “We were meant to be together and, while life has never been a ‘walk-through,’ we have a deep love and it was bashert.”

The Zimelmans are the parents of five daughters, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandchild — and he has officiated at all of their simchas. Their family tree’s branches have spread, across the country, to include Robin (Larry Eisenstein) Zimelman, their son Michael (Clarke Rosenthal) Eisenstein and their grandchild Beau and daughters Raquel and Juliet Eisenstein; Shari Zimelman and her children Benjamin and Mollie Chez; Beth (Michael Moskowitz) Zimelman and their sons Ethan and Jacob; Alyssa (Marc) Goldin and their children Heather (Josh) Epstein and Lauren and Jamie Goldin; and Elana Paddock.

“We couldn’t be prouder. We did things ‘our way,’ and believe we’ve been successful,” said Vivian. “Our daughters, as adults, still love one another and care for each other and the kids, they are just incredible.”

“My parents are perfect together, and they are lucky to have found one another,” said the Zimelmans’ daughter Robin, speaking on behalf of the next generations. “With children and grandchildren, now a great-grandson, all over the country they are the best Bubby and Zaide, ‘B’ and ‘Z’ ever, always connected, in touch and present in our lives.

“We were an instant family when they married, just four months after they met, this loving couple and four sisters together — and then one more,” she said. “Our little apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn was home.”

Zimelman served congregations in New York’s Flatbush Jewish Center and Agudat Achim in Schenectady before moving to Adath Israel in Cincinnati, Ohio, the latter a congregation of 1000-plus families.

In 1991, the Zimelmans moved to Fort Worth and he took the position at Congregation Ahavath Sholom. The next year, at the time of the congregation’s 100th anniversary, they voted to affiliate with the United Synagogues of America.

“In every congregation I’ve served, I’ve impacted our membership by advancing the acceptance of women’s participation in every area of services, by enhancing relations of interfaith connections and youth group experiences,” said Zimelman.

After leaving his role at Congregation Ahavath Sholom in 1998, Zimelman served Temple Beth El in Odessa, Texas. For 13 years, he and Vivian flew twice monthly for him to lead services and officiate at weddings, b’nai mitzvahs, conversions and more. He also, until the beginning of the pandemic, served the Federal Bureau of Prisons as chaplain at hospital prisons in Fort Worth, Big Springs, Pecos and Seagoville.

Through the years, the Zimelmans traveled extensively, including making pilgrimages to Israel. As Judaic art and antiquities collectors, they relish the memory of one shopping trip when they and Moshe Dayan were in the same store. Among their treasures are numerous menorahs, vessels, mezuzahs, lamps and more dating back to Abraham’s time. Their home is a library of countless tomes of Chumash and Midrash, of Yiddish titles and Zohar.

The couple have been on more than 15 cruises, he as the ship’s rabbi. They have sailed around the world lighting the menorah or leading High Holy Day services, on the QEII and the Queen Mary 2. Their last tour, in early 2020 with a group of retired rabbis during which a port stop provided a visit to the sukkah at Chabad Lubavitch of Tokyo, Japan, was the last to disembark as the pandemic stalled such travel.

Zimelman has been a member, and chaplain, of the Jewish War Veteran Martin Hochster Memorial Post #755 since its founding and international chaplain in 2018-2019. Among honors Zimelman has received is the Community Lifetime Service Award of the B’nai B’rith Isadore Garsek Lodge #269.

Zimelman has translated from Yiddish numerous memoirs, documents and private papers that are at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Yad Vashem and other sites.

“When I was writing my family history, the rabbi translated 70 pages of Yiddish correspondence of my ancestors, written between the World Wars. Among them were letters, postcards and wedding invitations written by relatives who later perished in the Holocaust,” said Hollace Ava Weiner, author and director of the Fort Worth Jewish Archives.

“At his kitchen table he not only translated the words, but also he read between the lines — if there was a Yiddish acronym or a Hebrew abbreviation, he tracked down the meaning,” Weiner added.

She said, “My grandfather’s obituary in ‘Der Tog,’ a New York Yiddish daily, was written by a professional journalist and Rabbi Zimelman cracked the code, verifying the eulogy was written by Zalman Shazar, a future president of Israel.”

Zimelman has also been translating some of the minutes of Congregation Ahavath Sholom, completing those of 1894 earlier this month.

Learning is something Zimelman has always taken seriously — in a formal classroom, through his congregants and even those he meets in the most unlikely settings.

Jamie Thornton, adjunct faculty in the English department at Tarrant County College and a professor at Purdue University Global, first met Zimelman and his wife while working out at 24 Hour Fitness. On the ellipticals, a friendship was born.

“They’ve shared so much time with me the last 12 years,” said Thornton, whose parents had passed away just before she met the Zimelmans. “It’s a most unique friendship as I was raised in Olney, Texas — a small town with little diversity — and their lives spill over to so many. Rabbi and Vivian have taught me patience and provided me, and I know many others, with wonderful and beneficial experiences.”

With Thornton, Zimelman has studied the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza; Gershom Scholem, the preeminent modern scholar of Jewish mysticism; and more.

“If you learn, and can translate that to others, then you continue to learn as well and you can never learn enough. Rabbi and Vivian both are examples of that and it’s my honor to feel like a sixth daughter to them. I love them dearly,” said Thornton.

Early each weekday morning, and on Shabbat, Zimelman makes his way to Congregation Ahavath Sholom, still leading many of the Torah readings. For him it’s a connection to and an honoring of his father’s memory. For 11 years, he and Rabbi Andrew Bloom have studied together after the morning minyanim.

“Rabbi Zimelman takes in everything he learns and is a walking encyclopedia who continues to make an impact on klal Yisroel, and the non-Jewish population too, by setting the example he does for all of us. He is a mensch, truly. He reads Torah, leads services, answers questions — he is a scholar at the highest level while always remaining humble,” said Bloom.

Bloom said Zimelman embodies Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel’s adage that “‘More than we need textbooks we need text people.’ A book, anyone can learn from. A person you can learn from and be the source. Rabbi Zimelman has always been the source for scholars, those just beginning to learn and, truly, for anyone he comes in contact with.”

Appropriate it is that Bloom quotes Heschel, although unaware that he was one of Zimelman’s teachers at JTS. Heschel, seeing Zimelman the student in the halls of the Conservative institution with a physical appearance of more rigor, asked him to study together.

“He told me to get ‘God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism,’ and each Sunday afternoon we’d meet. I’d summarize each chapter and I still have those notes. It was an incredible experience that, like so many, impacted and lasted through my life,” Zimelman said.

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