Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Father of Renewal Judaism, Dies at 89

Maverick Rabbi Led New Age Jewish Movement

Reb’s Voice Stilled: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi poses with journalist Sara Davidson.
Carl Studna
Reb’s Voice Stilled: Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi poses with journalist Sara Davidson.

By JTA

Published July 03, 2014.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the father of the Jewish Renewal movement, has died at age 89.

A maverick rabbi who started out in the Chabad-Lubavitch movement, Schachter-Shalomi transitioned over time toward a New Age, neo-Chasidic approach, gaining a substantial following on his own but also influencing other Jewish denominations.

His nontraditional approaches to Jewish spirituality, including services marked by ecstatic prayer, drumming and dancing, eventually morphed into the Jewish Renewal movement.

Known to friends and followers as Reb Zalman, he lived out his later years in Boulder, Colo., where he died Thursday morning after being ill for some time. An associate told JTA that he had been battling a pneumonia infection in recent weeks.

The movement he started had its origins in the 1960s, when Schachter-Shalomi began instituting meditation and dance during prayer services. He sought to fuse the mystical traditions of his Lubavitch background with the sensibilities of the modern world in an effort to revitalize a synagogue practice he found stultifying.

He eventually broke with Chabad, founding the P’nai Or Religious Fellowship in 1962 and a havurah — a lay-led congregation with no central leader — in Sommerville, Mass., in 1968. He ordained the first Renewal rabbi, Daniel Siegel, in 1974.

Schachter-Shalomi led prayers in English set to popular tunes, translated Hasidic texts on mysticism into English, promoted ecologically friendly kashrut and encouraged Jews to create their own colorful tallitot, or prayer shawls.

In 1993, P’nai Or merged with Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center to become Aleph, the Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The Philadelphia-based institution has ordained some 80 rabbis. Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna, Schachter-Shalomi’s family fled the Nazis and eventually landed in Brooklyn in 1941. He was ordained as a rabbi in 1947 by the sixth Lubavitcher rebbe, Yosef Yitzchok Schneerson. He later got a master’s degree from Boston University in the psychology of religion, and a doctorate from Hebrew Union College, which is affiliated with the Reform movement.

His last teaching post was at Naropa University, a Buddhist-inspired Colorado institution that is now home to Schachter-Shalomi’s archives.

“This man is a Chasid,” Rebecca Alpert, a professor of religion at Temple University, told JTA several years ago in an interview about Schachter-Shalomi’s influence. “No one could possibly duplicate his sagacity, presence and magic.”


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • "Everybody is proud of the resistance. No matter how many people, including myself, disapprove of or even hate Hamas and its ideology, every single person in Gaza is proud of the resistance." Part 2 of Walid Abuzaid's on-the-ground account of life in #Gaza:
  • After years in storage, Toronto’s iconic red-and-white "Sam the Record Man" sign, complete with spinning discs, will return to public view near its original downtown perch. The sign came to symbolize one of Canada’s most storied and successful Jewish family businesses.
  • Is $4,000 too much to ask for a non-member to be buried in a synagogue cemetery?
  • "Let’s not fall into the simplistic us/them dichotomy of 'we were just minding our business when they started firing rockets at us.' We were not just minding our business. We were building settlements, manning checkpoints, and filling jails." What do you think?
  • PHOTOS: 10,000 Israel supporters gathered for a solidarity rally near the United Nations in New York yesterday.
  • Step into the Iron Dome with Tuvia Tenenbom.
  • What do you think of Wonder Woman's new look?
  • "She said that Ruven Barkan, a Conservative rabbi, came into her classroom, closed the door and turned out the lights. He asked the class of fourth graders to lie on the floor and relax their bodies. Then, he asked them to pray for abused children." Read Paul Berger's compelling story about a #Savannah community in turmoil:
  • “Everything around me turns orange, then a second of silence, then a bomb goes off!" First installment of Walid Abuzaid’s account of the war in #Gaza:
  • Is boredom un-Jewish?
  • Let's face it: there's really only one Katz's Delicatessen.
  • "Dear Diaspora Jews, I’m sorry to break it to you, but you can’t have it both ways. You can’t insist that every Jew is intrinsically part of the Israeli state and that Jews are also intrinsically separate from, and therefore not responsible for, the actions of the Israeli state." Do you agree?
  • Are Michelangelo's paintings anti-Semitic? Meet the Jews of the Sistine Chapel: http://jd.fo/i4UDl
  • What does the Israel-Hamas war look like through Haredi eyes?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.