Renewal’s Struggle For Acceptance


Like a cross between the voice of God and a vintage radio broadcast full of pop and hiss, the disembodied sound of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi filled the sanctuary of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun.

It was a Shabbat celebration of the 75th birthday of Schachter-Shalomi, the rebbe of the Jewish Renewal movement, who is nearly universally known as Reb Zalman. For four decades he has been considered by many to be a marginal figure but has, in fact, also breathed a spark of spirit into the inner life of mainstream Judaism.

He was supposed to have been on the Upper West Side that Saturday, surrounded by his students and followers. But instead, on April 8 he was at home in Boulder, Colo., recuperating from a hospitalization a week earlier when what should have been a routine angiogram led to an emergency surgery to remove a blood clot.

So Reb Zalman was hooked up to the proceedings by telephone, his thin, faintly accented voice amplified by speakers hidden above the Upper West Side synagogue’s soaring ark and in its rafters. He was able to participate in the celebration and speak to his followers about the holiness of Shabbat and their mission by using technology, which departs from traditional observance’s prohibition against using electricity on the day of rest. It was a fitting illustration of the Jewish Renewal approach.

The celebratory Shabbat came as the Jewish Renewal movement (the network of roughly 50 congregations and havurahs (including one in Manhattan), 60 rabbis and several retreat centers) is trying to grow from a group of iconoclastic dissidents into a rooted, well-funded, established organization.

Three decades after Reb Zalman began reaching out to disenfranchised Jews with a hands-on, mystically inflected, radically egalitarian, liturgically inventive, neo-chasidic approach, many of the techniques he pioneered (from meditation to describing God in new terms) are widely employed in mainstream settings.

"The impact of Jewish Renewal is spreading," said Schachter-Shalomi, in a brief telephone interview. "When people see something is done with aliveness, it really touches them. And it keeps on spreading."

Today Jewish Renewal has the institutional shape of a movement, headquartered in Philadelphia in ALEPH: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal, with a loosely structured rabbinic training program culminating in ordination from Schachter-Shalomi.

ALEPH funds several projects, including the Institute for Contemporary Midrash and the Spiritual Eldering Project. It publishes the journal New Menorah and several prayer books, and is connected to both the retreat center Elat Chayyim, which is in the Catskill mountains, and runs the biannual Aleph Kallah, a summer gathering.But while Jewish Renewal’s approach to Judaism is gaining increased acceptance from mainstream groups, the movement is not being recognized as the source. In the minds of the establishment, Jewish Renewal remains a marginal group, say Renewal leaders.

"The greatest weakness of the movement is our internalized sense of rejection," said Rabbi Jeff Roth, executive director of the Elat Chayyim retreat center. "We feel like pariahs in the Jewish world, which then reifies itself into staying left out."

There’s "a psychological barrier" to acceptance, "and part of that comes from us," agreed Rabbi Daniel Siegel, rabbinic director of ALEPH. "A lot of us who formed Jewish Renewal formed it in very conscious rebellion against the Jewish establishment. There was an accusatory tone in the earliest stages of this, all the way through the 1970s. We were saying, ‘Your synagogues are empty, your synagogues are boring.’ "The earliest Jewish Renewalists, Rabbi Siegel said, "were rebels and dissatisfied people, people without money, people who didn’t fit into the neat boxes of the community of that time, people who weren’t getting married, people who were single parents, people who were gay and lesbian."

Jewish Renewal is now trying to complete its transition into an entity which can continue influencing Jewish life after its rebbe dies.

"Our influence is penetrating much deeper into the mainstream, but without acknowledgment," said Rabbi Siegel. "There is still a lot of ignorance and prejudice toward us in the other movements," he said.

At the same time, "We’re growing very, very fast. But what should our role be in this scenario? Part of this moment is deciding that."

The growing acceptance of the techniques and approaches first taught by Reb Zalman and his students is visible in many things. It is visible in the frequent appearance of the P’nai Or tallit on worshipers’ shoulders in Reform and Conservative as well as Reconstructionist and havurah settings, often worn by people who have no idea that it was designed by Reb Zalman in the 1960s so that each of its colored stripes would represent a different mystically interpreted aspect of God.

The acceptance is visible in the fact that Rabbi Elliot Dorff, rector of Los Angeles’ University of Judaism, which is a Conservative rabbinical seminary, and Rabbi Sue Levi Elwell, who works for the Reform movement’s Union of American Hebrew Congregations, both wrote articles for the current issue of New Menorah, which is devoted to gay and lesbian marriage.

It is visible in the fact that Rabbi Michael Paley, one of Reb Zalman’s early ordinees, has an important job at the epicenter of the Jewish establishment, as executive director of synagogue and community affairs for UJA-Federation of New York.

Rabbi Paley said that "the whole nomenclature of Jewish Renewal has become part of the federation world over last 10 years, especially the last three to four years," in the way things are discussed in continuity commissions and other departments.

Jewish Renewal’s impact is also visible in the fact that the Reform movement held a meditation retreat in Arizona in early April (the denomination’s first) and it was oversubscribed.

And it is visible in the current vogue, in liberal settings, for exploring new God-language as an alternative from the masculine wording of the traditional prayer book. Reb Zalman was one of the first to explore feminine language to describe God. He also broke away from standard modes of prayer, employing liturgical creativity that pairs off worshipers, with one person closing their eyes while the other recites a Psalm from memory.

Yet at the same time, in many quarters there has also been strong resistance to the movement’s innovations.

One of those which hasn’t widely caught on is substituting the breath sound "Yah" in prayers, replacing "Adonai," or "Lord." Another is addressing people with the title "Reb," a term expressing warm respect, but one which, especially when used to address a woman, can sound more like affectation than affection.

There is also widespread suspicion of the validity of the ordinations conferred by Reb Zalman, who works with each student to create an individual program.

He has done things which other movement leaders would not: One of the rabbis he ordained, Tirzah Firestone, was at that time married to a Christian minister.

The Reform and Conservative rabbinical organizations don’t admit Schachter-Shalomi’s rabbis.

"There is a sense that what is happening in that community is a watering down of tradition to meet individual needs, that it’s market-driven," said Rabbi Joel Meyers, executive vice president of the 1,500-member Conservative-movement Rabbinical Assembly. "It’s viewed with very mixed to negative reviews."

Quickie ordinations, ordinations done without people going through an in-depth period of study and learning, weaken the rabbinate and weaken Jewish life," said Rabbi Meyers.

Jewish Renewal is sometimes criticized as New Age, touchy-feely and stuck in the 1960s. And indeed, that was visible in the groovy Grateful Dead-head-style dancing a couple of women did at the edges of the sanctuary during a song at the recent Shabbaton at B’nai Jeshurun. It was audible in terminology coined by Reb Zalman and used by others, words such as "davvenology," and talk of a "vibratory spiritual experience."

Still, Jewish Renewal continues to attract people, touching one soul at a time. Many are those who have felt, like Renewal’s founders, on the margins of mainstream Judaism.

Donna Zerner is a freelance book editor who was raised a Conservative Jew and spent her 20s exploring Buddhist, Native American and New Age practices. When she first began attending services at the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder, Colo., the approach felt to her "like Judaism lite," she said.

"There was a lot of holding hands, dancing and looking deep into each other’s eyes. It was just like getting high, without being grounded in anything. I almost could have gotten that Sufi Dancing," she said.

"Jewish Renewal tends to attract people who have very little background in Judaism. Many have no idea what kashrut or Shabbat or the holidays are about. Most people come to our once a month Friday night services. There isn’t a lot of discipline and understanding of the structure that I think is important to Judaism."

Zerner has stayed with it, though, because in Jewish Renewal she finds a spirited joy that she hasn’t found anywhere else in Jewish worship.

"When I found Jewish Renewal, it was a wake-up call. It showed me that Judaism can be inspiring and spiritual, rather than irrelevant.

"Jewish Renewal is lively. It’s also a lot more fun. It’s more egalitarian and there’s more creativity. I like sitting in a circle when we daven, rather than have the rabbi on the bimah. I like praying outside and acknowledging nature, and practicing eco-kashrut."

"It’s a way," she said, "for me to feel positive about being Jewish."