Can The Establishment Do Renewal?


For the last quarter-century, Jewish Renewal has been a grassroots, anti-establishment movement embraced by Jews searching for spirituality in their lives. Now, itís becoming mainstream.

One of the four pillars of the new United Jewish Communities is being called Jewish Renaissance and Renewal. Its 36-member committee is slated to meet in Washington next month to develop ways to make Jewish life more meaningful. Because it is to be the committee’s first meeting, it is unclear which areas it plans to address.

The committee’s professional leader, Jonathan Woocher, said the committee has already been asked to address a report that recommends steps needed to assure that Jewish day schools continue to thrive and remain affordable. He said it might also deal with synagogue renewal, or with programs for adolescents, in light of the Birthright Israel program that offers young Jews a free, 10-day trip to Israel.

"The committee might want to capitalize on this new initiative in the context of our broad concerns for involving and engaging post bar and bat mitzvah youth," he said.

If this approach was used as a model for its work, Woocher said, the committee would seek to "enrich and support what is happening in the communities."

It might get some direction from leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement, none of whom interviewed for this story said they had been asked to join the committee or asked for any guidance.

"I wish they would do this in concert with those who have been doing this at the grass-roots level," said Rabbi Zalman Schachter Shalomi, 76, who is considered the visionary behind the Jewish Renewal movement. "We’ve been doing this since the early ’70s. The term Jewish Renewal is almost like a trademark for the work we are doing. It means a liberal way of Judaism with an eye to the future, at the same time connected very strongly with the inner sources of Jewish mysticism."

He noted that there are Jewish Renewal congregations in the United States, Canada, Israel, Europe and Brazil. One such synagogue in Manhattan is the hugely popular Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

"Why do so many go there?" Rabbi Shalomi asked rhetorically. "Because they are doing it right. We did the software and they wrote the document."

Rabbi Michael Lerner, one of the spiritual leaders of the Jewish Renewal movement who has a congregation in San Francisco, offered this advice: ‘You can’t revive Judaism in North America without speaking to the spiritual crisis in Jewish society and in people’s lives. … You can’t answer that crisis by providing a nice trip to Israel. People are asking what is here that provides me with an alternative to television and the maximizing of money as the highest value in the world."

He asked how a national organization like the UJC could address this issue "if they are the problem? Their organization is run on the same bottom-line consciousness that needs to be challenged in society. … The Jewish establishment needs a lot of education before it recognizes who it needs to speak to."

Another Jewish Renewal leader, Rabbi Arthur Waskow, director of the Shalom Center in Philadelphia, said Jewish Renewal must be done "face-to-face so that people re-energize themselves and each other."

He pointed out that there is a Jewish Renewal retreat center in the Catskills, Elat Chayym, in which 100 adults and 15 to 20 youngsters come at one time to "learn Torah together and meditate and learn new forms of prayer. When they leave, they are ready to do new things. Often the best stuff happens when four to eight people from one synagogue come and then go back home. They are often able to do and experience more effectively than individuals [who come alone]."

Beryl Geber, chair of the Jewish Renaissance and Renewal committee, said she expected the committee to "tap into everyone we can find to be of help to us and the community. … The product at the end may involve many individuals across the country that will pull in different generations and a variety of institutions and experiences."

Geber said her hometown of Los Angeles has a "strong and burgeoning range of organizations, institutions, movements and agencies that offer a variety of access points for people to experience the richness of their Jewish life and to expand the concept of what it means to be Jewish. … We are not trying to do what others are doing, we are trying to learn from them; it would be foolish to try to start from scratch."

Woocher said the committee may wish to identify gaps in programming for youth and adult learning, and establish different working groups to look at several issues simultaneously.

"Among our guiding principles is promoting more exchange of information and a better channeling of ideas to local federations," he said. "One of our goals is to expand the opportunities for federations, the movements and national agencies to work together. That is why they are all at the table."

The committee is composed of representatives from federations, the four denominations of Judaism, and a variety of national organizations, including Hillel and the JCC Association.

Woocher stressed that his work with the committee is for only a few months and that he would split his time between this position and continuing to serve as chief executive officer of the Jewish Educational Service of North America (JESNA).

Because federations run the UJC, it is expected that the committee will consult with them often. In particular, Woocher said he expected that there would be regular consultation with those involved in UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal. He said UJC’s initiative on Jewish Renaissance and Renewal "represents a continuation, expansion and enrichment of the work done by JESNA, [the defunct] Council on Jewish Federations and Hillel, all of which have been working with the New York Jewish community."

Billie Gold, a member of the Jewish Renaissance and Renewal committee and chair of UJA-Federation’s Commission on Jewish Identity and Renewal, said "Jewish renaissance and renewal is like politics: it’s all local. But the national system can serve as a catalyst and convener, set a national agenda and encourage things to happen across North America."

The executive vice president of UJA-Federation, John Ruskay, said that although Jewish renewal requires "focused energy on the most local of institutions where Jews are introduced to Jewish life (such as schools, community centers, synagogues, Hillels and camps) the UJC can provide value at the national level. In addition to advocacy, it can identify the best practices and successful models. And national initiatives may be able to bring a broad range of funders together with educational and other institutions to undertake such national initiatives as Birthright."