CINCINNATI, Dec. 6--Rabbi Sheldon Zimmerman, the widely respected leader of Reform Judaism's central seminary, has resigned his post and beensuspended from rabbinical duties for at least two years because ofinappropriate "personal relationships" before he became president.

Zimmerman, who has led Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute ofReligion since 1996, will undergo counseling and be prohibited fromworking as a rabbi until the Central Conference of American Rabbisreviews his case, at the earliest in two years.

A woman who answered the phone at Zimmerman's house in Cincinnatisaid Zimmerman, 58, "was not available."

The resignation, submitted Monday to the seminary's boardof governors, caught the Jewish community by surprise, with associatesreacting with "shock" and "sadness."

"Rabbi Zimmerman acted with great dignity in this case and acceptedresponsibility for his actions, and we're grateful to him for the mannerin which he's responded," said Rabbi Eric Yoffie, president of the Unionof American Hebrew Congregations, representing the country's 900 Reformsynagogues.

Yoffie said the ethics committee of the Central Conference ofAmerican Rabbis--representing the country's 1,800 Reform rabbis--recommended Zimmerman be suspended, and the board upheld thatrecommendation on Monday. Burton Lehman, chairman of the school's boardof governors, accepted Zimmerman's immediate resignation with "profoundregret."

According to a statement released by the seminary, Zimmerman steppeddown because of an "inquiry into personal relationships" before hebecame president in 1996.

The Associated Press reported that the allegations against Zimmerman involved relationships with women that violated ethics rules.

Yoffie told The Dallas Morning News that Zimmerman did not contest the charges.

The seminary has appointed Provost Norman Cohen to serve as actingpresident, and a search committee will look for Zimmerman's replacement."We are extremely proud of this institution, its faculty, itsadministrators and students, and look forward to their continued growthand success," Lehman said in a statement.

Yoffie said Zimmerman's resignation was greeted with "great shockand disbelief."

"He is a very much beloved figure in the movement and he's donewonderful work at Hebrew Union College, but in light of these events,there was no other course of action," he said.

An 11th-generation family rabbi, Zimmerman was born in Canada in1942 and attended college at the University of Toronto. He was ordainedat Hebrew Union College in 1970.

Prior to leading the seminary, he had served as senior rabbi at NewYork's Central Synagogue from 1972 to 1985, and senior rabbi of TempleEmanu-El in Dallas from 1985 to 1995. He also served as president of theCentral Conference of American Rabbis from 1993 to 1995.

Rabbi A. James Rudin, the senior interreligious adviser for theAmerican Jewish Committee and a columnist for Religion News Service,called Zimmerman a close friend and said Judaism has lost a greatleader.

"The thing that is unique about him is that, yes, he was the head ofthe Reform seminary, but he brought with him a commitment to the wholeJewish community," Rudin said. "I am greatly saddened and disappointed.It's a great loss."

The seminary, with campuses in New York, Cincinnati, Jerusalem, andLos Angeles, is the main rabbinical training ground for Reform Judaism.It has ordained 2,328 rabbis, including 262 women. It ordained thecountry's first woman rabbi in 1972 and the first female cantor in1975.