Jewish Renewal

An introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement.

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This article is reprinted with permission from The Jewish Week

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 home in Boulder, Colorado, 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.renewal

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 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 both is connected with the retreat center Elat Chayyim, which is in the Catskill mountains, and runs the biannual Aleph Kallah, a summer gathering.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

Debra Nussbaum Cohen is a staff writer for The Jewish Week.