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.

Reform Movement Sets Sails for Fundamental Change

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram



A new Reform Judaism is rapidly emerging: inspiring, courageous, inclusive, radically hospitable, spiritual, and relevant.

In light of “doomsday statistics” about diminishing Jewish identification and affiliation, as given in the recent, much-publicized Pew study, how is this possible?

One should keep in mind that such studies only document what had been, and typically miss the exciting new approaches across the flow of Jewish history, that percolate in every age, and sometimes catch on big time.

One watershed moment was the Union for Reform Judaism (URJ) Biennial, held in San Diego last month.

As announced in the Biennial, URJ membership is no longer required for attendance at its conferences, camps and youth groups. Many of the best innovations and innovators of our times, from within Reform, Jewish Renewal, Conservative, and Reconstructionist Judaism, were in evidence.

Each attempted fusion worked elegantly and authentically, maintaining the heart and structure of Jewish prayer while riveting the 5,000 participants even during lengthy Shabbat services. Choreographer Liz Lerman led prayer through authentic movement, for example, and virtually everyone participated (see video).

More after the jump.
The URJ is going head to head with the orthodox movement, Chabad, in terms of embracing the core Jewish spiritual practices, the mitzvot, as the URJ president, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, explained:



I met recently with Rabbi Yehuda Krinsky, a cherished member of the Lubavitcher Rebbe’s inner circle, who now has the responsibility of overseeing Chabad’s worldwide activities.

Shortly after we sat down in his office at 770 Eastern Parkway in Brooklyn, Rabbi Krinsky leaned forward and asked, “Rabbi Jacobs, can we be frank?”

I said “Yes,” not sure where he was going.

“Why are you so busy trying to get more people into your Reform Movement? After all, you don’t care about kashrut, you don’t care about Shabbat, and you don’t care about mitzvot, so what are you so busy doing?”

I responded, “Rabbi Krinsky, we care about kashrut. We care about Shabbat. We care about mitzvot. We just care differently.”

“My job,” I told him, “is exactly the same as yours: to try and bring more and more people close to the sacred core of Jewish life.”

I believe with the very fiber of my being that young Jews are hungry, but not for a Judaism frozen in a distant time, no matter how loving and warm the purveyors — including Chabad, in particular — might be.

Rabbi Jacobs himself, along with the music director for the conference — the soulful, deeply God-connected Josh Nelson — set a contemplative tone of meaningful rather than formulaic prayer.

This shift one of affect, away from services styled after the music of Debbie Friedman, of blessed memory, that was often accompanied by rabbinic intoning of prayers.

It turns out that some of the senior URJ leadership has studied or been featured with Rabbi Rachel Cowan and her team at the Institute for Jewish Spirituality (IJS).


The Korean-born rabbi, Angela Buchdahl, has become a symbol of Reform inclusiveness.

The Importance of Inclusion

Another service co-leader was the new head rabbi at Central Synagogue in Manhattan, Angela Buchdahl, who is also listed as part of the non-denominational Institute for Jewish Spirituality.

Korean-born Rabbi Buchdahl has lived in the U.S. since the age of 4, and Rabbi Jacobs used her presence as a focal point to advocate for attention though kindness and inclusiveness throughout the movement, noting that people would often love her services when he and she shared a pulpit, and then ask him quietly, “Is she really Jewish?”

He later gave a shout-out to Congregation Or Ami in Clabasas, California which

 “identifies itself by saying: ‘We are also ‘Mosaic’ in that we connect back to Moses, a Hebrew child, raised by Egyptians, who married a non-Jewish woman of color and became the leader of his people.'”

Jacobs spoke further about every possible category of difference and the importance of inclusion:

When we open our doors — and more, our hearts and minds — and say, “Come in, we need you,” we will have new talent and energy beyond our wildest dreams.

Al tistakel b’kankan, warned our sages, “don’t look at the bottle,” ela b’mah sheyesh bo, “but at what is inside it.”

Inside those people whom we exclude is another great gift, another opportunity of a lifetime just waiting for us. As we learn from Abraham, we cannot wait for the seekers.

The Union plans outreach to every kind of public venue. Both year-round family camping and a fourteenth camp for “Jews who love science” will open this year.

Regarding intermarriage, Jacobs advocates doors open wide:

It is not just sociology that demands that we be serious about welcoming interfaith families. It is theology as well.

We have a sacred obligation to open our doors, to add to our ranks, and to make sure that Progressive Judaism has a growing, not a shrinking, voice in proclaiming what Torah must mean for our time and for our world.

It is a veritable gift of God to have the opportunity of a millennium: more non-Jews who want “in” than Jews who want “out.”

That has never happened before. We dare not squander this gift out of fear of what new voices may say and where new opinions may lead.

Heavily “strummed” services were mostly moved to smaller breakout service times, performance sessions and variegated welcomes (see video to the right).

Best of all the many abundant approaches to helping people feel welcomed was embodied by the phrase used by Rabbi Jacobs, “audacious hospitality.”

Heightened Spirituality Broadly Evident

Shifts toward soulful approaches in both music and liturgy were abundant. The movement’s new Mishkan T’Filah prayerbook worked beautifully in the mix.

In perhaps a related development, Neshama Carlebach, daughter of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, z”l, announced at her late-night standing-room-only conference concert with Josh Nelson that her soul is “making aliyah to the Reform movement,” an announcement for which she received resounding applause.

And in an article published immediately after the conference ended, Carlebach termed the URJ Biennial “the largest spirituality-oriented gathering of Jews in North America”:

Reform synagogues have always been “the shuls I didn’t attend.” Simply put, I had no idea how extraordinary Reform Judaism was.

The tikkun olam (social justice) mandate is so strongly bound up with the movement, and in the most joyous of ways. I was overwhelmed by the music, by the davening (prayer) and yes, my Orthodox friends, by the ever-present light of Torah.

Some of the Biennial’s Influences:

The Underlying Forces

Rabbi Jacobs description of this new approach echoes almost the identical wording of the literature of Jewish Renewal.

The founder of Jewish Renewal, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (widely known as “Reb Zalman”), once told the author of this article, “It’s really we (the Renewal movement) who have accomplished what the Rebbe set out to do.”

It must have been a nachas (pleasure) for Reb Zalman to hear what took place at the Biennial, and to know that many Jewish Renewal teachers, students and principles were strong influences in the mix. (See sidebar)

As explained by the director of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, Rabbi David Saperstein
, in a recent tribute to a Renewal social activist, Rabbi Arthur Waskow:

The Renewal movement has not only grown into a significant presence in its own right, but has had a profound impact on the Reform, Conservative, and Reconstructionist movements.

It is time that this be acknowledged. The merging of aesthetics of new liturgies and rituals, the synergy of mystical prayer and meditation, passion for social justice rolled into an expression of Judaism has brought new light into so many Jewish lives.

These two tents within progressive Judaism — Reform and Renewal — have a great deal of synergy in place already.

The Reform Movement has the numbers and the strength to reach out to the majority of Jews whom Rabbi Jacobs termed “nones” — those having some Jewish interest, but no affiliations.

Jewish Renewal, in the words of a Renewal rabbi who attended the Biennial, Rabbi Diane Elliot “is well-positioned to provide ‘midwives'”: spiritual teachers specializing in one or more modalities (chant, movement, hiddur mitzvah, etc.), who are equipped to go out into Reform communities, and those of other denominations, to help implement this emerging, Renewal-infused agenda:

Midwives are patient. They understand the global trajectory of the birthing journey, and at the same time they know how to meet the birthing mother where she is (“ba-asher hu/hi sham,” Genesis 21:17), helping her to stay present and in contact with what is happening right now, opening bit by bit, not pushing too soon, but when they time comes, pushing hard.

Midwives are coaches. In the wake of the Biennial, I saw that Jewish Renewal clergy are well suited for the role of spiritual coaching among other denominations.

While I see us continuing to serve and create new enclaves of Jewish Renewal, it seems to me that the most effective way to spread the “good news” of what we offer is not to pour energy into trying to aggressively market ourselves as a movement, thus throwing ourselves into competition with other larger and much better funded streams of Jewish life, but rather to consciously offer ourselves in service of k’lal Yisra’el, “all Jews.”

True to the role modeling of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Rabbi Elliot proposes that Jewish Renewal continue “doing what we do best — opening hearts, minds and bodies to deeper and more comprehensive practice and experience, thoroughly grounded in Jewish textual, historical, and mystical traditions.”

To my mind, this kind of research and development can feel risky and even earth-shattering for some folks, given Jews’ communal trauma history, passed on unconsciously, cellularly, from generation to generation, through body language, thought patterns, and child-rearing practices, as well as through story, fiction, poetry, theater, visual art, and contemporary midrash.

So the deep work, integrating new modalities, is best done in small groups on retreat and in more intimate community settings, where trust can be built and healing manifest — for individual participants, for communities, and for Judaism itself.

Jewish Renewal Rabbis, Cantors Support Supreme Court ACA Decision

— by Rabbi Edi Stafman and Rabbi Pam Frydman

In response to the Supreme Court Decision on the constitutionality of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Board of Directors of OHALAH, the trans-denomination Jewish Renewal association that includes over 180 rabbis and cantors from all streams of Jewish life, released the following statement:

The historic ruling on the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act(ACA) is a victory for those who believe, as we do, that health care is a fundamental human right. The ACA has the chance to help the nearly forty million currently uninsured Americans receive coverage and the millions of underinsured who will see their situation improved. It is our hope that this decision will help remedy and heal the injustices and inefficiencies in the United States health care system, by guaranteeing preventative and emergency care, affordable prescription drugs, and insurance despite pre-existing conditions, among other benefits. We are also pleased that the Medicaid expansion stands, helping lower-income individuals get the health care they deserve. The ACA can now bring the health insurance system closer to reflecting our highest spiritual aspirations.

It is also our hope and prayer that this decision, although decided by a divided court, will begin to allow for healing of the deep divisions in the United States that this issue has caused, and allow us as a nation to work together towards our common goals and solving our common challenges.