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January/February 2004

Journeys in health, healing and our search for meaning

Jewish Renewal: Creating new paths to God

By Ellen Mahoney

      Linda Fredericks grew up in Skokie, Illinois, in a household that was associated with Reform Judaism. Her parents, both Holocaust survivors, identified strongly as Jews yet had little religious observance outside of attending High Holiday services once a year.

     "In my household," Fredericks says, "it always seemed that Sabbath (a day traditionally set aside for attending services and reading religious texts) was a day specially created by God to go shopping."

     In her late 20s, Fredericks married John Chatfield, who had been raised as a Methodist but whose spiritual interests were more aligned with Eastern mystical practices. Then in the late '80s, Fredericks became attracted to an emerging form of Judaism called Jewish Renewal, and now enjoys the close-knit, spiritual community she's found in Boulder.

     Although she says her husband isn't Jewish, he does occasionally attend services and feels comfortable there-especially since there are a number of non-Jewish spouses who attend.

     "I believe that Jewish Renewal has put the joy back into Judaism," Fredericks says. "The services are lively and interactive and are never in the 'Turn to page 57 and recite out loud' format. I also like that the services are accessible to people of all ages and backgrounds. People who are raised Orthodox, as well as people who have little formal instruction, can still find common ground in the beauty and power of the prayers and in the sense of devotion to a divine presence. Because of my involvement in Jewish Renewal, I've come to understand that faith isn't a once-a-week or once-a-year experience. It's an ongoing process that permeates who I am and how I interact with and care for others."

     Jewish Renewal, a unique aspect of Judaism, is a transdenominational movement that strives to blend Judaism's mystical and prophetic traditions. Plus, it's meant to be as uplifting and dynamic as it is spiritual. At Jewish Renewal services, for example, there is an abundance of joyful, mystical and creative expression through art, music, dance and bibliodrama. Hebrew is also translated to English so everyone, no matter what their faith or cultural background, is able to understand the words. And while Jewish Renewal is sometimes referred to as a new-age interpretation of Judaism, Jewish Renewal rabbis have pointed out that the meditation, dance, chant and mysticism emphasized in their services have been present in Judaism throughout the ages.

     Jewish Renewal has its roots within feministic Judaic beliefs as well as the Havurah movement of the 1960s, in which small groups of Jewish families gathered in homes to create personal expressions of their faith outside the traditional American synagogue.

     But primarily, Jewish Renewal draws heavily on the thoughts and works of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who were both trained in Orthodox, mystical Jewish teachings. Both consider Jewish Renewal to be a "loving critique of the limitations of traditional Rabbinic Judaism and a call to continue the ongoing renewal of Jewish life in our time, as the Talmudic rabbis did in theirs."

     Reb Zalman, as he is affectionately called, explains why the movement began in the first place. "After the Holocaust, there was a great need for Jews in the here and now to make changes and to renew their beliefs and traditions," he says. To answer this need, Reb Zalman first founded B'Nai Or Religious Fellowship (Sons of Light) in 1962, which later became P'Nai Or (Faces of Light). Today, the organization, based in Philadelphia, is called Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Aleph works to "reclaim the Jewish people's sacred purpose of partnership with the Divine in the inseparable tasks of tikkun olam (Hebrew for healing the world), and tikkun halev (Hebrew for healing our hearts)."

     How prevalent is Jewish Renewal? Reb Zalman says it's hard to determine just how many people are involved within the movement because many followers of Judaism are instinctively embodying the fundamental ideals of Jewish Renewal. Moreover, the Tikkun Magazine website states: "It would be a mistake to think that any one organization is "the" Jewish Renewal movement. Rather, you will find elements of Jewish Renewal consciousness in a wide variety of institutions and movements in Jewish life today."

     The city of Boulder has a strong, caring Jewish Renewal community. Not only is it the home community of Reb Zalman, but there are two active congregations: Nevei Kodesh (Hebrew for Oasis of Holiness) with Rabbi Tirzah Firestone as its rabbinical leader; and the newly-formed Pardes Levavot (Hebrew for Heart Garden) which has Rabbi Victor Gross and Rabbi Nadya Gross as its leaders. Rabbi Jack Gabriel, also a Jewish Renewal rabbi, has served the Jewish community of Fort Collins, and was called to serve as rabbi at large in the greater Denver area.

     Anyone wishing to attend Jewish Renewal services is gladly received, and there is no requirement to convert to Judaism. People from all denominations are welcome at weekly services or during the special holidays such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur and Simchat Torah. As with most religions, an actual conversion to Judaism, whether Orthodox or non-traditional, requires a commitment to learning about the religion through a number of classes and a rabbinic blessing.

     Another important aspect of Jewish Renewal is that women and men participate equally in religious services and are included in the shaping and decision-making of the future of Judaism. In addition, people who have been traditionally marginalized in Jewish life (such as singles, gay men, lesbians, converts and interfaith partners) are welcomed and honored.

      For example, Mary Fulton, who lives in Boulder with her husband and two children and works with Reb Zalman, has an interfaith marriage. Mary grew up in an actively devout Methodist household in Kansas and eventually married Steve Beale, a practicing Jew from Los Angeles.

     "When Steve and I were dating," Mary says, "we talked about religion. Judaism is not only a religion, it is also a culture. For Steve, there wasn't a question of not being Jewish-he is Jewish by genes and culture. I remember being clear about two things: one is that there is only one God (a strongly held tenet of Judaism) and that there are many paths to God. The other thing I knew was that it was important to me to raise our children in some religious setting."

     Mary became interested in Jewish Renewal in the early 1990s and began to learn about Judaism by taking classes in basic Hebrew, the Psalms and prayer. Although Mary has chosen not to convert to Judaism, she, Steve and their children attend services with the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder and participate in special holidays.

     One important and vibrant force in Jewish Renewal today is Rabbi Tirzah Firestone, a teacher, author and Jungian therapist in private practice in Boulder. Rabbi Firestone was raised in an Orthodox home in Missouri that seemed to run counter to her natural religious curiosity. Determined to find her own spiritual path, she forcefully rejected her Jewish upbringing and journeyed around the world and into the very heart of counterculture spirituality.

     Rabbi Firestone practiced Kundalini yoga, lived with a Hindu community, and explored radical philosophies such as Arica and Christian mysticism. After years on her spiritual quest, Rabbi Firestone married a Christian minister. Her parents rejected this interfaith marriage. Ultimately, her life choices helped redefine her beliefs and eventually brought her back to her Jewish roots.

     In the mid-1980's, Rabbi Firestone began her studies with Reb Zalman and received her rabbinic ordination in 1992. She is the founding rabbi of the Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder and has written two books: With Roots in Heaven (Plume, 1998), a personal memoir, and The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom (Harper San Francisco, 2003), which describes the holy women, female sages and miracle workers of Jewish history.

     "Ultimately, I discovered that Judaism intrinsically supports the unfolding of one's unique self," Firestone writes in With Roots in Heaven. "The same God who inspired the Jewish prophets and sages throughout the centuries was no different, I realized, than the guiding power of the Self about which Jung taught. This divine force beckons each one of us throughout our life to discover the fullness of our being, to arrive at our own secret destiny.... Perhaps the internal voice that guided me back to Judaism is the same voice that is guiding so many of us nowadays to excavate and bring to life the ancient spirit of our traditions, too long buried."


Resources, local and beyond

For more information on Jewish Renewal, check out the following:

Alliance for Jewish Renewal,

Jewish Renewal Community of Boulder,

The Network of Jewish Renewal Communities,

Godwrestling Round 2: Ancient Wisdom, Future Paths, by Rabbi Arthur Waskow 
(Jewish Lights Publishing, 1998)

Jewish Renewal: Path to Healing and Transformation, by Rabbi Michael Lerner 
(A Grosset/Putnam Book, 1994)

Paradigm Shift, by Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (Jason Aronson, l993)

The Receiving: Reclaiming Jewish Women's Wisdom, by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone 
(Harper San Francisco, 2003)

With Roots in Heaven, by Rabbi Tirzah Firestone (Plume, 1998)

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