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).