Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 89, founded Jewish Renewal Movement

Z. Schach-ter-Shalomi
Z. Schach-ter-Shalomi
Posted: July 05, 2014

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, 89, father of the Jewish Renewal movement and a towering figure in Philadelphia's Jewish community for 20 years, died Thursday, July 3, at his home in Boulder, Colo.

He had endured bouts with bladder cancer and other illnesses, and had been battling pneumonia. He died in his sleep, said Rivkah Walton of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Known to friends and followers as "Reb Zalman," he was born in Poland but fled Hitler with his family, coming to America in 1941.

He was ordained an Orthodox Lubavitcher rabbi, but by the 1960s felt it too confining. In founding the Renewal movement, he is credited with being the first to unlock and update Old World spirituality for contemporary Jews, generating waves of innovation and fervor that have filtered into mainstream Jewish life.

He lived in Philadelphia from 1975 to 1995, his most fertile two decades. As a religion professor at Temple University, he produced scores of articles and Hasidic text translations. And he became the Pied Piper of Emlen, opening a house on Emlen Street in West Mount Airy and raising the countercultural experimentation among Jews there to a new level.

"He had a huge impact and influenced a generation of scholars who were thinking about religious life," said Rebecca T. Alpert, a religion professor at Temple and former student there of the rabbi. "He turned a community very much focused on Israel and the Holocaust as central passions of Jewish life in America back on itself," Alpert said. "He knew how important those things were, but he cared about people's spiritual lives, their inner lives. He wanted American Jews to recognize themselves as religious people who could have a relationship with God that wasn't cold and stale but was warm and alive, evoked through dancing and music and all kinds of experimentation in prayer.

"He invented all kinds of engagement with the body," she added. "He wanted people to feel God in their bodies. He was able to inspire people who hadn't really thought about these things or been moved by their religious practice."

"When I heard that he had died, I felt a real loss," said Adam Zeff, rabbi at Germantown Jewish Centre. "As a teacher and a spiritual leader, he remained active into the '90s and 2000s. His presence was so magnetic. He had an outsized effect on the Jewish world."

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi met the Dalai Lama and was friends with Timothy Leary, known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs. The rabbi experimented with LSD to see if it could enhance spirituality.

In 1995, the rabbi left Philadelphia for Boulder, where he held a chair in world wisdom at Naropa University. This began a new-age phase for the rabbi, in which he held a particular interest in what he called "spiritual aging."

Just before he moved, he published a book, From Age-ing to Sage-ing, in which he argued that older Americans should review their lives, come to terms with their mortality, share their wisdom, and help heal the planet's wounds. "The Earth needs a cadre of elders who are prepared to serve, in schools, in neighborhoods, in boardrooms," Reb Zalman said at the time.

A funeral service is planned for Friday, July 4, in Boulder. The rabbi did not want people to travel to attend, partly out of concern for the carbon emissions it would expend, Walton said.

mvitez@phillynews.com215-854-5639 @michaelvitez

This article contains information from the Associated Press.

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