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Renewal Wants to Keep Same Spirit While Standardizing Rabbis’ Training


Karyn Berger, a slight, dark-haired woman wearing a royal blue prayer shawl, steps up to the microphone to introduce herself and her four colleagues. All are about to be ordained as Jewish Renewal spiritual leaders — two rabbis, two rabbinic pastors and one cantor.

“We were born in Austria, Budapest, the Bronx, Toronto and Oklahoma,” she begins. “We grew up atheist, Reform kosher, socialist-Zionist. Two of us went to Orthodox yeshivas. Our average age is 49, and collectively we’ve been married for 75 years.”

When the laughter dies down, Berger, a doctoral student of medieval Arabic and Hebrew poetry, continues more seriously.

“All five of us got our call to serve, and here we are,” she said. “Our calling is to heal souls — the souls of the Jewish people.”

The candidates’ teachers and mentors are then called up to stand behind their former students, who literally lean back into the arms of those who taught them, receiving ordination via hands-on transmission.

This very personal, emotion-filled ceremony on Jan. 7 — the highlight of the annual Ohalah convention, the professional association of Renewal rabbis — is in keeping with the mission of Jewish Renewal.

It’s an egalitarian, neo-Chasidic Jewish practice that is reaching for greater internal consistency and standardization of its rabbinic training.

Often derided or acclaimed as “New Age Judaism,” Renewal focuses on environmentalism and direct spiritual connection to the Divine. It’s part of the burgeoning world of transdenominational Judaism — the growing number of synagogues, rabbis and prayer groups that eschew affiliation with a Jewish stream.

Renewal rabbis share the same cross-denominational sensibility.

“I’ve prayed and worked in all the denominations,” said Rabbi Alicia Magal, ordained in 2003. “Wherever I am, a part of me is very comfortable and a part of me says this could be different. I’m a bridge; I never completely fit in any place.”

Renewal is “not a denomination,” but an attempt to revitalize Jewish practice by emphasizing its spiritual depths, says Rabbi Marcia Prager, dean of the rabbinic program for Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The approach was developed four decades ago by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a former Chabad-Lubavitch rabbi who is still the movement’s spiritual head.

Renewal today claims 40 affiliated congregations. Since 1974, 112 Renewal spiritual leaders have been ordained — 98 rabbis, three cantors and 11 rabbinic pastors. Sixty are graduates of the Aleph rabbinic program, created in the late 1990s to bring greater consistency to the course of study and relieve the pressure on Schachter-Shalomi, who had been personally overseeing each student’s progress.

The Aleph program differs from other seminaries in that it is completely off-site. Each student has an individualized program developed and overseen by a mentoring committee. That can include classes at other seminaries, synagogues and universities, independent reading and traditional hevruta, or Torah study in pairs, as well as teleconference courses led by Aleph teachers.

In addition to Hebrew, Jewish text, history and philosophy, and professional development courses, Renewal students study Chasidic literature and philosophy, meditation and prayer, and are each assigned a mashpia, or mentor, who guides their personal religious journey. The mashpia system is a staple in the Chasidic world.

Other seminaries offer electives in spiritual direction — 75 percent of the students at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College take it each year — but Aleph requires it.

“They have to know Bible and Talmud, of course, but we have made spiritual direction the core,” said Rabbi Victor Gross, a former Conservative rabbi who is now on Aleph’s central teaching committee.

Whereas other seminaries have carefully structured five-year rabbinic programs — six if a preparatory year is required — an Aleph course can take from two to 10 years or more. Few students are full-time; most are older and cannot leave family and career behind to attend a traditional seminary.

“Many of the people we ordain do not work as full-time rabbis,” said Aleph treasurer David Rafsky. “They do it for the love of it. It’s a midlife, mid-career add-on to already successful careers.”

The 2005 class of 10 rabbis, for example, included a physician, two lawyers and three people with doctorates. One of the lawyers was Eli Cohen, a former public defender in Santa Cruz, Calif., where he now serves as a Renewal pulpit rabbi.

When Cohen’s interests turned to Jewish studies, he felt Renewal best matched his spiritual leanings.

“How could I best serve God?” he wondered. “For me that meant following my heart, and that meant Renewal.”

Laura Kaplan was a philosophy professor at the University of North Carolina when she received her Renewal ordination two years ago. Leaving her safe tenured position meant “there was something very compelling to me about moving from academia to the world of spirit and serving people,” she said.

Daniel Siegel, the first Renewal rabbi ordained by Schachter-Shalomi in 1974 and now an Aleph teacher, says each seminary has its strengths: Aleph’s focus is pastoral care.

“We’re trying to train people who are drawn to the service of other people,” he said.

Leaders of other seminaries raise concerns about Aleph, not for the quality or sincerity of its students or faculty, but for its lack of standardization.

Rabbi Dan Ehrenkrantz, president of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, notes that Aleph has not sought accreditation, and he questions its reliance on distance learning.

“Our program is five or six years for a reason,” Ehrenkrantz said. “We want people to have certain socialization experiences that are crucial in the development of a rabbinic identity.”

“If someone is called ‘rabbi,’ it presumes piety and a deep knowledge of Jewish text and Jewish tradition, as well as ethics, integrity and leadership,” said Rabbi William Lebeau, dean of the rabbinical school at the Conservative movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary, noting that he is describing what his school offers, not what Aleph may lack. “If other programs are giving that to their students, I have no argument with them.”

In fact, when prospective students approach Aleph, if their goal is to become a pulpit rabbi they are encouraged to enter another seminary to increase their job opportunities. Many have done so, ending up with double ordination.

Magal was already well along in her Aleph studies when she decided to seek concurrent ordination from the Academy of Jewish Religion, a nondenominational seminary founded in New York in 1956 that has a new Los Angeles branch. She says she missed “rubbing elbows with other students.”

Part of the lack of standardization is intentional.

“The key to Renewal is autonomy,” Schachter-Shalomi told the Ohalah gathering. “We bring heart to the situation. We bring compassion.”

But it’s also something Aleph’s leadership is working hard to change. The establishment of the school in 1995 was itself an attempt to bring greater consistency to the preparation of Renewal rabbis, a process that continues. There’s an extensive application process, course work is continually evaluated and two years ago a stable curriculum was created with courses that rotate.

The creation of Ohalah was a second step in the same direction, says Aleph board member Rabbi Pam Frydman Baugh, immediate past president of Ohalah. “In the early days a person who was ordained was out on their own,” she said. “Now we have Ohalah to provide things rabbis need as they move forward in their profession.”

But she acknowledged that Renewal is still fighting for acceptance. That’s nothing new: When Reconstructionism emerged in the early 20th century, the other denominations looked askance.

“Then Renewal came around, and Reconstructionism became part of the establishment,” Baugh said.

One day, Renewal, too, could be supplanted. But for now, she admits, “we have that chip on our shoulder that comes from being the new kid on the block.”

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