What is a Jewish Renewal Rabbi?


Leaf imageIn some ways this is a hard question to answer, as each Renewal rabbi I know is quite unique. As students, we are encouraged to find our unique path, and go where we are needed. While many of my colleagues are pulpit rabbis, others are chaplains, professors, educators – and some are writers, spiritual counselors, or political activists. There is also a small core of Renewal rabbis who are involved in the creative expression of Judaism, as composers, artists, and liturgists.

The Renewal movement began in the 1960’s, as many Jewish youth began to turn away from Judaism and toward other Eastern religions in a quest for spirituality. The Lubavitcher Rebbe of that time was very concerned with this trend, and hired two young rabbis, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, and Schlomo Carelbach to visit college campuses and do outreach. Zalman and Scholmo listened carefully to the concerns of the students, and in response created a kind of “grass-roots” Jewish practice that was consonant with the values of this demographic group, one that was egalitarian, invested with spirituality, joyous, and life-affirming. This was not exactly what the Rebbe had in mind (particularly the egalitarian piece); he cut ties with Zalman and Scholmo, and the Renewal movement was born.

leaf imageRenewal’s founders encouraged the formation of havurot (“circles of friends”), in which all members would be educated enough to lead services, read from the Torah, deliver a Torah teaching, lead a seder. From the Havurah model came the (now classic) book, The First Jewish Catalogue, which was a compendium of hands-on knowledge and practice. Zalman and Schlomo, both from Hasidic families, also saw in the movement the opportunity to bring forward, and reconnect, the lines of the early Hasidic and mystical traditions that had largely been severed by World War II and the Shoah. For this reason, the Renewal movement is sometimes called “neo-Hasidic”. Zalman and Schlomo found in their followers people hungry for these spiritual teachings; to this day a large part of our rabbinic curriculum includes in-depth study of the writings of such teachers as the Baal Shem Tov, Nachman of Breslov, and Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev.

Like many of the experimental movements of the 1960’s and early 70’s, it must be truthfully said that there were times when things got “a little out there”. However, by the early 1980’s Jewish Renewal began to find equilibrium, and to gain the attention of the more mainstream branches of Judaism, whose members were also asking for more depth, more creativity, and a “more spiritual” approach. During this time, there was a fair amount of cross-fertilization between Renewal, Reconstructionist, Reform, and even some Conservative leaders. We began to see things such as gender-sensitive prayerbooks, Reform Jews beginning to wear a tallit again (sometimes even a colorful, handmade one), more women rabbis and cantors, Conservative rabbis speaking from the pulpit about “spirituality”, adult education classes in Jewish meditation, and in general, a more joyous approach to worship.

Thus, the underlying contributions of the Renewal movement to American Jewish life are these: creativity, joy, hands-on involvement, and a return to the deep spiritual teachings of the early Hasidic masters. These things, for certain, bind together all Renewal rabbis, no matter where or how they serve.

cottonwood tree leafDuring the course of my education, I had the opportunity to study with some brilliant and innovative teachers, including Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shlomi himself, through whose hands I received my ordination. I also apprenticed for 8 years to a master Hazzan, Carl K, Naluai, Jr. of Congregation B’nai Israel in Sacramento. Hazzan Naulai learned the art of hazzanut in Vienna and was invested as a Hazzan by the Satmarer sect. He passed along to me a deep reverence for the ancient art of hazzanut and ba’al kriah, and yet also taught me how to be creative, and to render these Jewish musical treasures into modern settings in a way that would engage the heart and soul of the listeners.

I have worked in many different Jewish settings: Reform congregations large and small, in a large Conservative shul, in small-town and even rural independent shuls (which necessarily must please people from a great mixture of backgrounds). I have learned that the most effective way to lead services is to be carefully attuned to the needs of the people in the group, and to create a unique and delicate blend in response to all that the members of the group understand as “traditional”. This is usually quite a challenge, but also a fun puzzle to solve. I always enjoy the working out of a new blend of tradition, which has really been the Jewish story throughout the centuries, as we encountered change and growth from within and influences from our various host cultures without.

Underlying all of this, in terms of my style, is my Renewal training: reverence for the old forms and the ancient wisdom, approached with joy, depth and creativity. Also very important to me is the participation and involvement of all present. It is important to me to get to know each of my congregants, and to see what we create together.

kol ha’brachot,
shula-leafR’ Shula Stevens Calmann

Midtown Sacramento | info@rabbishulastevens.net | [916] 442-7315