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Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman Leads Through Change

As one of only a handful of female rabbis in the country, Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman leads Minneapolis’ Temple Israel and Minnesota’s largest Jewish congregation.

Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman Leads Through Change

At age 17, Rabbi Marcia Zimmerman, like many young jews, had the opportunity to visit Israel. It was a defining moment for her, and the first step on a path to rabbinical study and eventually to her current role as Senior Rabbi at Temple Israel in Uptown.

“I was transformed,” Zimmerman said. “I spent three weeks on a kibbutz working in the fields and three weeks traveling with a summer youth program. I realized there that my Judaism was important to me on a very deep level,” Zimmerman said.

That was at about the same time that the first woman ever to become a rabbi was ordained in 1973.

Zimmerman went on to attend Macalester College, where she had the opportunity to hear a female seminary student speak. She said that was the moment she knew she wanted to be a rabbi. From there, she went to rabbinical school in New York, one of four places to study in the US. After completing the five year program, she returned to Minneapolis.

“It was always my hope to come back here. I met my husband Frank Hornstein at Macalester and we always loved the Twin Cities,” Zimmerman said of her husband, who represents parts of Southwest Minneapolis in the state House. “Temple Israel came along as an opportunity, so it worked out beautifully.”

With the exception of one other female rabbi who leads a congregation of about 1,200, Zimmerman said she is the only female to become senior rabbi of a congregation the size of Temple Israel, which stands at nearly 2,000 members. 

“It was a bold move back in the 1970s,” Zimmerman said. “The reform movement was the first to ordain women, because they said we can understand the tradition, but we also have to understand the world as we know it, and that gender roles are changing. It had a lot to do with the women’s movement and the world outside of Judaism,” Zimmerman said.

Zimmerman said much of her role as a Rabbi revolves around life cycle events, from birth to death. She helps oversee 50 to 70 funerals a year on average, and many Bar and Bat Mitzvahs. She also provides pastoral care for families and individuals, and participates in interfaith work with churches, cathedrals and mosques around the city. She said the rabbi, and the congregation at Temple Israel, also serve as spokespersons for Judaism and Jewish traditions.

Temple Israel’s physical location, on Emerson Avenue in Uptown, is important to its mission Zimmerman said.

“We stay in the city for a reason. It’s not just our geographic place but it’s because of who we are. We work with other churches and mosques and with the city itself to take care of those in need. We really see our address as our mission and vision,” Zimmerman said.

Jeff Milligan-Toffler, whose son Jacob was a recent Bar Mitzvah at Temple Israel, said Zimmerman’s guidance has had a positive impact on his family. 

“Rabbi Zimmerman's outreach efforts toward inter-faith families are largely responsible for our family's connection to Temple Israel, which has facilitated our Jewish practice and provided an excellent education for our son,” Milligan-Toffler said. “Marcia's leadership in the progressive Jewish community has been a source of inspiration for many, and she remains a significant voice for mutual respect and social justice in our world.”

Congregation member Norah Shapiro’s daughter became a Bat Mitzvah last year, and her family also had the opportunity to work closely with Rabbi Zimmerman.

"Rabbi Zimmerman performs countless ceremonies throughout the life cycle events of this enormous congregation, but always connects personally and individually - an amazing gift to us. To have a woman Rabbi at the helm of such an enormous institution is of tremendous value to me personally, and in terms of what is modeled to our children, along with her commitment to asking hard questions and always pursuing how this community can do and be better, now and in the future,” Shapiro said.

Temple Israel was founded over 130 years ago, and was the first Jewish institution established in Minneapolis. At that time, the Minneapolis Jewish community was much smaller than that of Saint Paul, where several institutions were already in place. The original congregation had several different addresses before moving to its current location at 2324 Emerson Avenue where the sanctuary was built in 1928. Temple Israel’s front facade was designed to resemble the Lincoln Memorial as a statement of religious freedom at a time when anti-semitism was prevalent in the city.

“The facade was built for everyone to see,” Zimmerman said. “To show that we are proud and honored to be Jewish. That statement of religious freedom has been our cornerstone,” Zimmerman said.

The quote on the front of the building is from Isaiah: "My House Shall Be a House of Prayer for All Peoples."

The idea of what Judaism looks like for the 21st century is changing exponentially, not incrementally according to Zimmerman. She noted that the congregation at Temple Israel just completed a strategic plan for how to be a relevant and central institution for the broader worldwide Jewish community. She said there are currently about 14 million Jews in the world.

“Being Jewish today is different than in generations past,” Zimmerman said. “We must meet the needs of the next generation as well as the current generation. A lot of change is happening, but it’s not something to be concerned about or afraid of. It’s an interesting time. I’m challenged by it, and encouraged by it.”

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