Jewish Renewal

An introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement.

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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,” says 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, rabbinical director of ALEPH. “A lot of us who formed Jewish Renewal formed it in a 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 community of that time, people who weren’t getting married, people who are 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 acknowledgement,” said Rabbi Siegel. “There is still a lot of ignorance and prejudice toward us in other movements.”

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 [P’nai Or was the predecessor to ALEPH] on worshippers’ 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 the 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.

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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