Fort Worth

New rabbi installed at historic Fort Worth synagogue

Rabbi Brian Zimmerman has taken the leadership at Beth-El Congregation.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman has taken the leadership at Beth-El Congregation. pmoseley@star-telegram.com

The sacred Torahs pass around the Beth-El Congregation temple, finally ending up in the hands of Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, who passed one of the books to his son, Brian.

The symbolical gesture installed Brian Zimmerman as the official rabbi of the historic Fort Worth synagogue.

Brian Zimmerman is a 12th-generation rabbi who traces his roots back to Rabbi Pinchas of Koretz in 18th-century Poland. That he got to have his father, Sheldon Zimmerman, install him while being surrounded by friends, mentors and family made the moment even more powerful.

“It’s very humbling at a moment like this,” he said. “I stand on the shoulders of a lot of people. I have a great responsibility in the eyes of the congregation. You combine that with the feeling of having your own father bless you and bear witness to how I’ve done in life.”

It’s also a rare occasion in the 114-year-old history of Beth-El with Brian Zimmerman being the 13th rabbi to lead the congregation. He actually took over July 1 for Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, who retired after 32 years.

He has big shoes to fill, and he’s often reminded that some people in the congregation still remember when Mecklenburger took over in 1984. The rabbi before that was installed when President Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House. Some families have been attending Beth-El since it was founded.

“I’m still working on learning everybody’s names and everybody’s story,” Zimmerman said. “It sounds like a joke but it’s important that everybody feels like their rabbi knows them and their congregation cares about them personally.”

Luckily, Mecklenburger, now rabbi emeritus, still has an office at Beth-El, and his presence lifts everyone’s spirits, Zimmerman said. He’s also a strong fixture in the Fort Worth faith community.

“He has always been helpful at sharing his insights,” Zimmerman said. “I enjoy bouncing ideas off him. He’s been enjoying his retirement, going on cruises and enjoying his family.”

Before he took the job at Beth-El, Zimmerman was a yearlong scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.

Before that, Zimmerman was the regional director for Reform Judaism and helped synagogues across the country sort through difficult issues. While that was satisfying, he missed the day-to-day interaction with a congregation that he had when he presided over his own temple in Tampa Bay, Fla.

Congregation President Laurie Kelfer was part of the committee that interviewed candidates for the rabbi position at Beth-El, which has about 450 members.

“He thoughtfully challenges us and has integrated so smoothly into our congregation,” Kelfer said. “We just have the highest regard for him and we know our congregation is in good hands with him. He celebrates the richness of our faith with our diverse congregation.”

‘Extended family’

Beth-El’s history makes Zimmerman feel like he’s part of something bigger than himself. After Friday’s ceremony, he’s officially part of the Beth-El family, he said.

“It’s a very warm congregation,” Zimmerman said. “There’s an extended family feeling and also a deep, deep history in the community.”

He’s still learning about the congregation’s needs but has some ideas for what he wants to do.

“We are looking at the areas that really can grow the congregation,” he said. “We’re looking at how our bar mitzvah program functions; we want to energize the youth group and expand our college program.”

His goal with the college program is to make young adults feel like Beth-El is a “Jewish home away from home,” Zimmerman said.

For the youth groups, Zimmerman wants to inspire youths to become leaders in the community.

Outside of work, Zimmerman is a movie buff who enjoys a day at the theater. His favorite genre is horror movies.

“It is my therapy to hear the stories of others,” he said. “I use it in some of my teaching, I use it in classes. It is my No. 1 outlet.”

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