Jewish Renewal

An introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement.

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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, Colorado, 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.

Elat Chayyim, the retreat center, that is a major center of the Jewish Renewal movement. Photo credit: Elat Chayyim

“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 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 [a raised platform]. I like praying outside, acknowledging nature, and practicing eco-kashrut.”

“It’s a way,” she said, “for me to feel positive about being Jewish.”
This article provides an introduction to the Jewish Renewal movement, an informal network of individuals (including rabbis), synagogues and havurot (many of which have formal affiliations with ALEPH: the Alliance for Jewish Renewal) that share an affiliation with the philosophies and practices of Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi. (It should be noted that since this article was published in 2000, ALEPH’s ordination program no longer leads to ordination from Schachter-Shalomi but through the ALEPH Rabbinic Program, a non-denominational, decentralized seminary. The program requires students to master Jewish text and traditional modalities of learning and prayer, and encourages the exploration of new forms of ritual, art, music and prayer.)

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Debra Nussbaum Cohen

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