Jewish Renewal Movement Founder Dies at 89

— by Rivkah Walton

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, founder of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal, passed away peacefully in his sleep the morning of July 3, 2014, at his home in Boulder, Colorado.

Growing up in Vienna, Schachter-Shalomi partook of numerous Jewish movements flourishing at the time — secular, Zionist, intellectual — well beyond his family’s Belzer Hassidic roots. Fleeing the Nazi onslaught, his family eventually made their way to New York in 1941. There, he studied to become an Orthodox rabbi and was ordained by the Lubavitch Hassidic (Chabad) yeshiva in 1947. The sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneersohn, made him an emissary to college campuses.

Reb Zalman earned an MA in the psychology of religion from Boston University and a doctorate from the Reform movement’s Hebrew Union College. His major academic work, Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism, was based on his doctoral research into the system of spiritual direction practiced in Chabad.After turning 60, he also pioneered the practice of “spiritual eldering,” working with fellow seniors on coming to spiritual terms with aging and becoming mentors for younger adults, as described in his book, From Age-Ing to Sage-Ing: A Revolutionary Approach to Growing Older (written with Ronald Miller).

Reb Zalman is widely considered the zaide, “grandfather” of the Havurah movement throughout North America. In 1968, he was instrumental in the founding of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA, an experimental rabbinical yeshiva that grew into a collective egalitarian spiritual community. The First Jewish Catalog, written by Havurat Shalom members Richard Siegel, Michael Strassfeld and Sharon Strassfeld (1973), helped popularize Reb Zalman’s eclectic, do-it-yourself, meaning-making approach to Jewish practice.

In 1978, he founded B’nai Or, “sons of light,” a name he took from the Dead Sea Scrolls, as both a local Philadelphia Jewish Renewal congregation and a national organization. The widely-worn rainbow prayer shawl he designed according tokabbalistic principles is still known as the “B’nai Or Tallit.” Both the congregation and the organization later changed their names to the more gender-neutral P’nai Or, “faces of Light.” In 1993, the national P’nai Or organization merged with Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center, to form ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Reb Zalman encouraged the use of arts in liturgy: music, movement, drumming and chant. He introduced practices from the Human Potential Movement into the service, and used American folk tunes to re-enliven ancient hymns (for example, singing the well-worn “Adon Olam” to the tune of “Amazing Grace”).

Conversely, Reb Zalman innovated English translations of liturgy and Torah text that can be chanted to the traditional melodies. Similarly, he encouraged the growth of new interpretations of biblical text through the practice of contemporarymidrash, “interpretation” through the literary, performing, and visual arts. Aleph has been called the “R&D department of the Jewish world,” and many of Reb Zalman’s innovations have been widely integrated into the progressive Jewish denominations.

In 1990, Schachter-Shalomi was among the diverse group of Jewish leaders who traveled together to Dharamsala, India, at the request of the Dalai Lama, to discuss with him how a people can survive in diaspora. That meeting of East and West was chronicled in Rodger Kamenetz’s “The Jew in the Lotus,” and inspired the flowering of Jewish approaches to meditation.

Schachter-Shalomi held academic posts at the University of Manitoba (Winnipeg) and Temple University (Philadelphia), and in his later years, held the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa University (Boulder). He also served on the faculty of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Omega, and many other major institutions.

After numerous “private ordinations,” Schachter-Shalomi founded ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal’s Ordination Program, which has ordained over 80 rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors, and provides post-graduate training as a mashpia ruchani, “spiritual director.”

In 2005, the Yesod Foundation created The Reb Zalman Legacy Project “to preserve, develop and disseminate” his teachings, which led to the 2011 donation of the Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi Collection to the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the 2013 creation, with the Program in Jewish Studies, of the Post-Holocaust American Judaism Archives.

In 2012, Schachter-Shalomi’s book, Davening: A Guide to Meaningful Jewish Prayer, won the National Jewish Book Award in Contemporary Jewish Life and Practice. The last book printed before his death is Psalms in a Translation for Praying.

Memorial donations may be made to the Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Endowment Fund for Jewish Renewal.

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