By Ben Tinsley
FORT WORTH — In September 2014, Tablet Magazine formally named Brian Zimmerman one of “15 American rabbis you haven’t heard of but should.”
This story has particular resonance in light of the fact that Zimmerman was recently named senior rabbi of Fort Worth’s Beth-El Congregation.
Tablet Magazine, an American Jewish general-interest online publication, published a brief biography of Zimmerman outlining how — after seven years as the spiritual leader of Beth Am (a large congregation in Tampa, Florida) — he departed to Dallas to assume the position of congregational network director for the South at the Union for Reform Judaism.
“In 2006, Brian Zimmerman left one synagogue to become the rabbi of dozens,” the story reads. “… Zimmerman, a 12th-generation rabbi ordained in 1993, is one of a handful of the Reform movement’s unsung heroes — rabbinic regional directors who work tirelessly to bolster the denomination’s synagogue life while not occupying an individual pulpit of their own.”
But that particular status has changed.
Members of Beth-El Congregation voted unanimously Sunday, Jan. 24, to name Rabbi Brian Zimmerman their new senior rabbi. Beth-El is a 450-member Reform congregation founded in 1902 and located in Southwest Fort Worth.
Rabbi Zimmerman will formally occupy the pulpit July 1, replacing Ralph Mecklenburger as senior rabbi.
Mecklenburger is retiring after 35 years and will subsequently assume the role of rabbi emeritus at the congregation. He knew both Zimmerman and Zimmerman’s father Sheldon, who was the senior rabbi at Temple Emanu-El for many years.
On Monday, Rabbi Mecklenburger said he was “thrilled” with the selection of Zimmerman and the extent to which the 13-member search committee went to find his replacement over the past year.
Rabbi Mecklenburger said the synagogue would be in “good rabbinic hands” with Rabbi Zimmerman.
Rabbi Mecklenburger said he has known Rabbi Zimmerman for quite some time and has the highest regard for him.
“When he got the job as regional director of the URJ and moved from Florida to Dallas, I was the Southwest Association of Reform Rabbis representative on the committee that selected him,” Rabbi Mecklenburger said.
Incidentally, Rabbi Zimmerman will be only Beth-El’s third senior rabbi in more than 60 years. Rabbi Mecklenburger and his predecessor, Rabbi Robert J. Schur, each served for more than 30 years.
Zimmerman, a native of New York, is expected to build on the strong legacy of Rabbi Mecklenburger.
Described as a theologian, a scholar and an author, Mecklenburger is well-known for the engaging and energetic style he has used to nudge congregation members toward greatness during 30 years on the post.
Rabbi Zimmerman, meanwhile, has many years of experience as an associate, senior and visiting rabbi in congregations in Texas, Maryland, Florida and Louisiana.
Most recently Rabbi Zimmerman spent nine years as regional director of the URJ.
Zimmerman spent his time with the URJ working with the nearly 200 Reform synagogues in 11 states across the American South. He helped them work through financial, membership, governance, and interpersonal challenges.
During a brief phone interview Monday, Rabbi Zimmerman said he is very enthusiastic about the new job.
“I have spent the last nine years doing regional work — moving from congregation to congregation — and it has been a while since I was in one place for morning, noon and night,” he said. “But I know this congregation. I have led worship there. … They were looking for someone who can find the balance between honoring the past but also connecting with the world of the future.”
Zimmerman described Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger as a real “mensch” whom he very much looks forward to working with — honoring his legacy as Mecklenburger transitions from senior rabbi to rabbi emeritus.
“I have a long relationship with Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger and his wife, Ann,” Zimmerman said.
Jane Nober, chair of the search committee that sought the rabbi’s replacement, said Rabbi Mecklenburger is a tough act to follow and leaves a powerful legacy.
“We searched so hard because we needed someone to try and fill those shoes,” she said.
Nober was quick to add that Rabbi Zimmerman’s résumé speaks for itself.
“Between his time as the Beth Am rabbi and his time with the URJ, he has had extensive experience,” Nober said. “Whenever a congregation was having any kind of problems he was available to come and help resolve and mediate and think through issues. He really has seen everything that can happen at a congregation and he has helped so many temples get through difficult times. We are just so lucky to have someone with that experience focus all the wisdom on us.”
Zimmerman currently lives in Dallas with his wife, Mimi, a Dallas native who is admissions director at Yavneh Academy; their son Saul, 15; and their daughter, Molly, 13.
The rabbi said he and his family would be relocating to Fort Worth in the coming months.
Nober noted that Rabbi Zimmerman has the ability to connect with different people of different generations — which she said should help him greatly during the course of his new job.
“It’s a real gift,” Nober said.