Does Jewish Renewal Have a Future?

by Rabbi Sid Schwarz

I recently had the opportunity to spend some time at the annual gathering of Ohala, the rabbinical association of the Jewish Renewal movement, and at a shabbaton led by students studying at Aleph, the rabbinical training program of the movement.

Although I knew quite a few people at the conference, I came as an outsider. I was invited to deliver the keynote to the Ohala national convention based on the work that I do with rabbis and congregations around re-imagining these institutions. A fairly comprehensive summary of my keynote appeared in a blogpost by the Velveteen Rabbi. Here I want to share a few impressions that I took away from my visit.

Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi continues to be a powerful presence in the Jewish Renewal movement. The conference takes place near his home in Boulder, CO so as to make it easier for him to be present. People approach Reb Zalman with great respect and reverence. When he speaks, he fully commands the attention of the room. He has earned this status. Reb Zalman is one of the most important voices of Judaism in our time. Though he has had conventional jobs as a Hillel rabbi, University professor, author and lecturer, he is anything but conventional. In fact he is the ultimate boundary crosser. After escaping Nazi Europe in 1941, he was a Lubavitcher working on college campuses. But he soon made his reputation as a spiritual teacher who made company with the likes of Shlomo Carlebach, Ram Dass and the Dali Lama. I know of no other teacher who can move so seamlessly between Chasidic texts, Eastern religious traditions, Native American heritage and secular American culture. His groundbreaking work in what he terms, “davvenology” permeates all the work done in the movement.

For anyone who finds worship in American synagogues boring, a small dose of Jewish Renewal prayer is worth a try. It isn’t for everyone but the use of chanting, meditation, movement, unconventional readings and personal sharing does provide much of what so many Jews are chasing in non-Jewish spiritual settings. Not surprisingly the rabbis who have been ordained by Reb Zalman and now the more formal rabbinical training program they have called Aleph, are classic spiritual seekers themselves. As the program for ordination and other spiritual leadership programs have become more rigorous it is clear that those training with Aleph are selecting this path with great intentionality.

It is ironic that much of what Reb Zalman and Jewish Renewal were developing 30 years ago and more is now making its way into mainstream American synagogues. Congregations of all denominations can now be found experimenting with meditation, yoga, drumming, chanting and movement, if not in their main services than in alternate venues that are sanctioned by the rabbi. This “borrowing” has led to some degree of resentment among the longtime leaders of the movement although I did not hear any such complaint from Reb Zalman himself.

The sentiment expressed is that mainstream Jewish denominations take advantage of the R and D work of Jewish Renewal without any attribution while, at the same time, Jewish Renewal struggles to gain acceptance and financial support. Frankly, Mordecai Kaplan and the Reconstructionist Movement can tell exactly the same story as fifty years ago non-Orthodox movements cherry picked Kaplan’s most attractive ideas and made them their own even as the movement that Kaplan helped to launch struggled for recognition and support.

One hears within the confines of the Jewish Renewal movement some anxiety about their future. While there were some young faces at the national gathering, most of the audience was made up of people in their 50’s, 60, and 70’s. While second career rabbis are becoming more common across the denominational spectrum, the Renewal rabbinate clearly skews older than most. The number of congregations in the Renewal network is growing but very few seem to be able to support full time rabbis no less a full complement of other professionals. Renewal rabbis are also competing in a shrinking synagogue market place. Yet if there is growth in that sector it is likely going to come from independent, non-denominational groups of Jews who are drawn to the leadership and style of a given rabbi. This is a trend that Renewal rabbis may be able to capitalize on.

In Renewal circles there is a lot of excitement about the explosive growth of Romemu, a new congregation founded by Rabbi David Ingber on the Upper West Side of Manhattan which has grown to 500 households in less than two years. The charismatic Ingber was ordained by Reb Zalman and he is candid about the debt he owes to Jewish Renewal in shaping his approach to Jewish life. Yet he himself is unsure whether the Jewish Renewal label will be an asset or a liability in growing his congregation.

Perhaps the biggest challenge facing Jewish Renewal in the coming years is the extent to which they try to build the infrastructure of a denomination. For decades they reveled in their outsider status, suggesting that their post-denominational approach to Jewish life was more consistent with the ethos of a post-modern Jewish community. Yet today there are several post-denominational seminaries including Hebrew College in Boston and the Academy of Jewish Religion in New York and Los Angeles (independent of each other though bearing the same name). In addition, both United Synagogue (Conservative) and the URJ (Reform) broke all the old rules of denominational Judaism at their recent, respective national conventions as they invited in a broad array of rabbis and teachers who were not card carrying members of their movements. When even the biggest denominations of American Judaism go post-denominational, it makes it harder for Jewish Renewal to make a case to foundations and potential funders.

All this is not to say that Jewish Renewal has no future. At a recent retreat that I led for rabbinical students from eleven seminaries across the denominational spectrum (I do this regularly under the auspices of the Rabbis Without Borders program of Clal), a student from the Orthodox seminary, Chovevei Torah, commented that the tefillah he experienced at the retreat opened him up to levels of kavannah (deep, intentional spirituality) that he rarely experiences in Orthodox settings. Clearly this was the influence of the Aleph students who pushed the boundaries of what can happen in prayer space. I will also say that the four days I spent in the Jewish Renewal community were filled with a level of heartfulness, compassion and spiritual depth that is hard to come by in most Jewish settings today.

I’ve spent the past two years traveling the country first writing and then discussing Jewish Megatrends and the future direction of the American Jewish community. From what I can see, the Jewish community can use a healthy dose of what Jewish Renewal has to offer. I never bet against heart.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz is the director of the Clergy Leadership Incubator (CLI), a program sponsored by Clal: The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, training visionary spiritual leaders for the American Jewish community. He is also the author of “Jewish Megatrends: Charting the Course of the American Jewish Community” (Jewish Lights).

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  1. says

    Sid Schwartz says that 50 years ago, “the movement that [Mordechai] Kaplan helped to launch struggled for recognition and support.” Fifty years ago, Kaplan was still working hard *not* to create a fourth denomination with all the institutions that go along with that. He wanted to influence the existing movements — and, as Rabbi Schwartz notes, he did so with remarkable success.

    Renewal’s ideas are much stronger than Renewal’s institutions. Rabbis with far more training and expertise — rabbis ordained by brick-and-mortar seminaries that require years of full-time study in an intense face-to-face religious community — can indeed learn a good deal from Renewal colleagues. I believe it will be the former, though, and not the latter, who will do the most effective work in serving the Jewish people.

  2. says

    Thanks, Sid, for this honest and favorable reflection of your recent experience at the OHALAH Jewish Renewal Clergy gathering near Boulder, CO. Your teaching was greatly appreciated and your presence during the conference was a reflection of your genuine interest and curiosity in the Renewal movement. Since the late 60’s, my husband, Reb Daniel Siegel, and I have been pioneers in the grassroots movement to renew Judaism. We have served and created communities in both Canada and the US and have been blessed to witness the transformation that has taken place as people open to their inner spiritual wisdom and creative religious freedom in harmony with our sacred texts and liturgy. I was especially appreciative of your last statement, “I never bet against heart.” When you spoke to us in Boulder, I had a sense of the tremendous shift that has taken place as the Renewal movement has influenced Jewish practice around the world. For many years, we thought of ourselves as the fringe, the “tzitzit” of the Jewish people. As you were speaking, I realized that we have become the “heart.” Our lifeforce energy of love, passion, compassion, devotion, and truth speaking is pulsing through the arteries and veins of the Jewish body today. And, like the heart, we often take her for granted even though we need her to survive. We may have struggled financially through the years but it has kept us humble, honest, and connected to a vision that was birthed from the ashes of the Holocaust and is carrying us into the twenty first century. We are blessed to have many young people in their twenties and thirties joining our seminary and they are already sounding the call for us to wake up to the interface between our beloved Judaism and the environmental crisis that we have created. The boundaries are dissolving as we come together for the survival not just of Judaism but of our children’s children world.

  3. says

    Yaasher Koach. Well said.
    I want to share a few resources that you bring to mind:
    1) Here Reb Zalman makes a distinction about Jewish Renewal as a denomination versus a force in Yiddishkeit:
    Also refer to the following from Reb Zalman giving some history:
    The Klal of Yisrael encompasses this Jewish Renewal denomination too. The sociological and economic forces are something we all must deal with in terms of how solid we can make our future. If we follow the model of Reb Zalman, then we will become more adept traveling through the Jewish landscape. We need to be rooted in Tanach, inspired by mysticism, understanding the basis of traditional halachah and practicing so it moves us closer to hashem, reflecting hesed of hasidus as we interface with others, and becoming spiritual directors for those whose theologies are stuck in secularism. It’s a tall order, but in this way, Jewish Renewal can continue to lead as Reb Zalman has, not just this movement, but Yiddishkeit in general. We must also be strong against the universal rise of fundamentalism which changes Yiddishkeit into something it never was. Brachot to you

  4. says

    I, too, thank R. Schwarz for his observations. I was happy that he decided to join us for Shabbat before giving his talk and that this informed his experience of us beyond the short question and answer period to which a keynote is often limited.
    A small correction: Our parent entity is called ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Our ordination programs go under the somewhat prosaic name of ALEPH Ordination Programs.
    We have so far chosen not to try and build a denomination not because we enjoy our marginal status. As my partner and wise friend, R. Hanna Tiferet, said above, we see ourselves more as a pulsating heart or core. We want everyone in need of Jewish spiritual renewal to feel at home with us and so our “walls” are as permeable as possible and we welcome clergy who belong to other organizations to join OHALAH as well if they so choose. And it gives me special pleasure that R. Schwarz lets us know that the denominational walls are becoming more permeable elsewhere.
    Again, thank you Sid.

  5. says

    Thank you so much for this heartfelt piece. As we look towards growing our community in Chicago, it’s important to remember “home (Makom) is where the heart” is. Jaqi Green, Makom Shalom, Chicago

  6. Peter Margolis says

    If we work backwards from the age demographic in Jewish Renewal events that skews toward the “50’s, 60, and 70’s”, we discover a population whose young adulthood was often informed by various means of achieving transcendence in ways vastly at odds with “the congregation will now rise, the congregation will now be seated” Judaism. I would venture to say that many in this group are still working to integrate — or even make sense of — those experiences Jewishly. Those among them who have succeeded and found their way to Renewal ordination surely constitute an important part of the senior spiritual leadership of the Jewish people. This both gives substance to the Jewish veneration of the wisdom that comes with age, and reinforces Judaism as a counterculture to the prevailing obsession with youth immersed in non-stop electronic stimulation. There is, however, a down side. The various “Rebs,” seemingly inspired in equal parts by re-interpreted Hasidism and 60s-style guitar heroes (there’s that demographic again), represent a type of charismatic leadership that can be a bit hard to take for people who are skeptical of following leaders. To the extent that Renewal can build upon its vision as a saving remnant and attempt to become a levening agent in the kinds of congregations to which many affiliated Jews still pay dues, I agree with Peretz Rodnman’s comment that perhaps it could take a page from the pre-denominational Reconstructionist playbook and infiltrate its ideas into the (forgive the term) Jewish “mainstream.”

  7. Lex Rofes says

    The most important fact dictating the future of ALEPH was not mentioned. ALEPH is just about the only way for individuals in relationships with non-Jews to become ordained as Rabbis should they choose to do so. If the movement’s seminaries continue to bar students in interfaith relationships from participation, we may see ALEPH’s number of students increase greatly.

    I myself am strongly considering the possibility of ALEPH, as a person in the circumstances I just described. At first it was because they were the only place that would accept me as I am, but now, after reading some of Reb Zalman’s work and exploring Renewal a bit more, I am drawn because I believe it really represents a form of Judaism that balances a connection to tradition with innovation and free-thinking better than any of the denominations.

  8. Rabbi Avi Winokur says

    It seems to me that Jewish Renewal has multiple futures. One future is in the increasing use of Jewish Renewal inspired spiritual practices in mainstream synagogues. Another is as one of many influences in institutions such as the Institute for Jewish Spirituality or trends such as increasing Jewishness of many influential JewBus who are not either Buddhist first and Jews second or Jews first and Buddhist second, but have two primary identifies—an integration that is authentic to both spiritual paths without the negative implications often associated with syncretism. Going further back (and I suspect going forward as well) Jewish Renewal’s imprint is also evident thanks to Reb Zalman and others in neo-Hasidism, the adaptation of traditional Hasidic spirituality into a contemporary key. Indeed I suspect that some of the institutions and trends already influenced by Jewish Renewal as well as some of those yet unborn may not even recognize the Jewish Renewal sources that helped give them life. As Sid points out this echoes the history of Reconstructionist Judaism.
    While it may be difficult for both Jewish Renewal leaders and Reconstructionist leaders not to feel a bit cheated at the adoption of their ideas by others who give them little, perfunctory or no credit or attribution, I think it is also important for both movements to bask in their influence on Jewish life as well. It’s a little bit like the highest level of Tzedaka. These movements, often anonymously and without fanfare, contribute life sustaining spiritual nourishment to mainstream Judaism. Dayenu. . . on one level.
    On a not-so Dayenu level, nourishing the core, i.e., the institutional glue that sustains Jewish Renewal is a real challenge. Finding ways to persuade Jewish philanthropists that the significant contribution of Jewish Renewal makes a compelling case for support is difficult, though it ought not to be. Many philanthropists probably still associate Jewish Renewal with fringiness, crunchy granola and birkenstocks even as their children and grandchildren are either members of mainstream synagogues deeply influenced (often in ways not visible) by Jewish Renewal or have found their way back to Judaism directly through Jewish Renewal and its offshoots.
    Perhaps what Jewish Renewal needs (and it may already be doing this, and Sid’s address to Ohala would certainly fit in with this strategy) is to convene a strategy team whose sole purpose to get out the message of Jewish Renewal’s already pervasive and nourishing influence on Judaism, and to get that message out in a way that can be used to influence major Jewish philanthropic support.