The Beth-El Congregation will have a rare changing of the guard this summer as longtime Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger retires and passes the baton to the newcomer, Rabbi Brian Zimmerman.
After an exhaustive search and a unanimous vote by the congregation, Zimmerman was named the next rabbi of Beth-El, a reform synagogue serving Tarrant County, and will take over July 1.
As a regional director for the Union for Reform Judaism, Zimmerman has been a resource for synagogues large and small in multiple states. He has also served as a yearlong scholar in residence at Temple Emanu-El in Dallas.
Zimmerman, 50, said he sought a spiritual home he could call his own.
“I really missed the day-to-day interaction of teaching children, watching them grow up and being the rabbi for the families,” Zimmerman said. “It was a great, great opportunity when this synagogue that I know well in Fort Worth had an opening.”
He was a rabbi before of a rather large congregation in Tampa, Fla., before he decided to join the Union for Reform Judaism.
Despite his decades of experience, he’s got big shoes to fill.
We need to build on Rabbi Mecklenburger’s legacy, which was to be a real presence in the greater Fort Worth community.
Rabbi Brian Zimmerman
Mecklenburger is a leader in the Fort Worth faith community and has been the rabbi at Beth-El since Ronald Reagan was president. And his predecessor, Rabbi Robert Schur, had been there since the Eisenhower administration.
That definitely brings its share of pressure, even for Zimmerman, a 12th-generation rabbi who grew up in New York.
“We need to build on Rabbi Mecklenburger’s legacy, which was to be a real presence in the greater Fort Worth community,” Zimmerman said. “He was so involved in so many interfaith projects that people in the community know they can depend on him.”
‘A jewel for the community’
In addition to being rabbi for 32 years, Mecklenburger remains active with the United Way, the American Red Cross and Hospice of North Texas.
Cheryl Kimberling, president of the Fort Worth-based Multicutural Alliance, said Mecklenburger was always out in front of key issues.
“Rabbi Mecklenburger lives his faith in the public square, and as a faith leader, he is willing to address key issues that are important to our community,” Kimberling said. “He has made significant contributions to our community, and his dedication to respecting and honoring differences among all races, cultures and religions brings us that much closer to greater understanding and greater harmony.”
This past summer, Mecklenberger helped lead an interfaith service after the murder of nine black worshipers in a Charleston, S.C., church.
And he has long been an advocate of religious tolerance toward Muslims.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said she and her family are longtime friends of the Mecklenburgers’. When Price became mayor and established her Faith Leaders Cabinet, which advises her on some community issues, she asked him to serve on the board. She has also served on other civic and nonprofit boards with him.
He gives of himself and he’s just been a rock for the Jewish community.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price
“He’s a longtime dear friend of mine,” Price said. “He’s been a jewel for the community. He gives of himself, and he’s just been a rock for the Jewish community. I can’t imagine he’s going to walk off in the sunset. That’s not his style. He will be there to share his expertise.”
Mecklenburger will still have an office at Beth-El and will be Rabbi Emeritus.
At 69, Mecklenburger said he looks forward to traveling the world, spending time with his family and writing. This congregation has been his passion for so long, it was a tough decision, he said.
“It’s taken me awhile to get used to the idea, but it’s time,” Mecklenburger said. “I’m planning on seeing some more of Asia and some more of Europe. It’s time to pursue other interests as well.”
There’s still much work to be done at Beth-El, he said.
“You never have everybody involved, but that’s the ideal,” Mecklenburger said. “Like every other clergy in town, I think we should have more people here for worship services.”
‘Thrilled to have him’
The 114-year-old Beth-El congregation had a 13-member search committee tasked with finding the next rabbi.
Laurie Kelfer, president of the Beth-El Congregation, said they also used a national rabbi matchmaking group to help them narrow the search. They surveyed members of the congregation young and old to see what they wanted in a new rabbi.
Their wants included someone who is enthusiastic, warm and approachable and inspiring.
Kelfer, who has been attending Beth-El for about 30 years, said Zimmerman meets all these criteria. During his time with URJ, he would travel to congregations in crisis and help them resolve financial or governance challenges.
“He has experience as a rabbi, and he actually worked for the URJ,” Kelfer said. “He has the wisdom from overseeing a number of congregations and bringing all of that to our congregation. He has a wealth of knowledge from interfacing with so many congregations. We are thrilled to have him coming aboard.”
We are thrilled to have him coming aboard.
Laurie Kelfer, president of the Beth-El Congregation
Zimmerman said he wants to raise the synagogue’s profile at TCU and throughout Fort Worth, making sure it’s a welcoming place for new members.
“How do we become the go-to place as new Jewish families come to town?” he asked.
He wants Beth-El to be a welcoming place for non-Jews, too, in hopes of bridging the divide among religions — just like his predecessor.
“I’m committed to creating safe places, even in this environment, a safe place for conversations where non-Jews in the community can ask questions about the Jewish people living in their midst,” Zimmerman said. “Religion is a personal subject, and it can be a divisive subject.”
Zimmerman’s wife, Mimi, is the admissions director for a Jewish high school in Dallas, and they have two children. This summer, they’ll move from Dallas, where he lives now, to Fort Worth.
Staff writer Sandra Baker contributed to this report, which contains information from Star-Telegram archives.