by Rabbi Burt Jacobson
In these monthly articles I have been offering readers some background history on the Jewish sources of the values and ideals that motivated me to develop the vision that became Kehilla Community Synagogue. In this six-part series, I turn to the legacy of Reb Zalman for our community.
By the early 1970s I had become a hippie. I spent time hanging out in communes in different parts of California, and also teaching in free schools in which the students and the teachers shared power and control. By 1973 I was living in the Haight-Ashbury district of San Francisco in a crash pad with other hippies. I never told anyone that I was a rabbi, or even that I was Jewish. I wanted a life unburdened by my past.
I had met Reb Zalman in 1963, but I hadn’t seen him in five or six years. I heard that he was offering High Holy Day services at Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. Should I go? I didn’t really like the High Holy Days with all of the traditional guilt-inducing liturgy. Well, maybe Reb Zalman was doing something novel with the holy days, so I decided to check out the scene. I attended Kol Nidre, but once again the liturgy was just too heavy to bear and I walked out an hour later.
Sometime later I heard that Zalman was offering a week-long seminar on the Zohar at the Hillel House in Berkeley. I decided to attend. When Zalman saw me enter the hall he came up and hugged me, inviting me to go for a walk during the lunch break so we could catch up on our lives.
As we strolled around the campus of the University of California, I revealed that I had been going through a major crisis in my life. I wasn’t certain that I could trust God—not after the Holocaust and my personal difficulties growing up during the gloom of the Holocaust. I hadn’t been sure whether I could even continue being a Jew, because my Jewish identity had been so deeply bound up with my sense of personal victimization.
“I certainly understand, Burt. The Holocaust has really changed everything,” he told me. “No honest Jew today can open to God or develop a sense of faith until he first faces the darkness of the Holocaust and struggles through its challenges.”
And then I told Zalman that I had become exhausted by the authoritarian character of Jewish tradition as I knew it, by the heaviness of the legalistic approach to observance of the rituals, and by the narrowness and parochialism of Jewish religion.
“This must all change, Burt,” Zalman replied. “We’re living in a new era, one that calls for an entirely new approach to our tradition, an approach that comes out of love and offers people spiritual sustenance.”
“Yes, I’ve been reading about the Ba’al Shem Tov,” I told Zalman.
“That’s good. The Ba’al Shem knew something about the changes that were needed.”
And then Zalman said to me, “Burt, I must say that I really admire the path you have taken and I’m confident that you will come out of this stronger and more whole.” It was a pivotal moment for me. Zalman’s concern was both comforting and empowering. Somehow, I knew that I would soon return to the Jewish path.
That same year, Zalman came to Berkeley and spent five nights a week for four weeks providing the attendees in his seminar with the tools they would need to form their own community of prayer. Members of the group wanted to continue Zalman’s work by observing Shabbat and Jewish holy days together, and they began to meet in one another’s homes on Friday evening. They originally called themselves the “Floating Crap Game,” but later took the name Aquarian Minyan.
I had signed the mailing list for Zalman’s seminars and I received a notice regarding the formation of the Aquarian Minyan. Might this new community offer me a path to reconnect with Judaism in a way that wouldn’t threaten my fragile Jewish identity? I wasn’t sure, but late one Friday afternoon I drove from San Francisco to Berkeley to attend one of the Minyan’s Shabbos evening gatherings. The attendees seemed sweet-natured and welcoming, and the service was loving and open-hearted. I recognized some of the folks I had met at Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer in San Francisco.
During the service, the singing and dancing were ecstatic, and the spirit of joy was entirely palpable. People spontaneously shared the blessings they had received during the week that had passed, and they blessed one another for the coming week. The only traditional liturgy that was chanted was the Sh’ma and I realized that many or most of the Minyan folks were not conversant with the siddur, the traditional Jewish prayerbook.
I finally moved from San Francisco to Berkeley to become a member of the Aquarian Minyan. I soon discovered that some of these young seekers were students or professors at the University of California; some were dropouts from the Orthodox world; others were hippies with no knowledge of Judaism at all. Others had experienced the mystery and unity of existence through the use of psychedelic drugs or Eastern religious practices, and they wanted a way to link these visions with Judaism.
For many months I told no one that I was a rabbi. I simply wanted to experience what seemed to me to be part of a healthy non-judgmental form of Jewish community and see what it felt like to be openly Jewish once again. Within six months I had become one of the Minyan’s spiritual leaders.
There were several qualities that Zalman possessed that drew people to him. He had a magnetic personality, and his very presence brought joy to people. And the spirituality he offered was deeply relevant to the lives of the people to whom he spoke.
Reb Zalman could hear the genuine concerns of individuals without the need to prove the veracity of his own beliefs. And he had a great love and concern for people. One of my most important teachers, Rabbi Arthur Green, spoke at a memorial service for Zalman just after his passing. In his eulogy, Art said that “Whatever you had to offer, Zalman was there to encourage you, to receive it and to help you celebrate it and make it grow.” Art concluded his eulogy with these words:
Zalman’s work is not completed. The Judaism of profundity and joy that he sought to articulate and share is still news to most Jews. The rescue of Hasidic wisdom and the beauty of its truth from the straits of exclusivism and narrow-mindedness, making it available to seekers Jewish and non-Jewish, here and around the world, has only just begun. A Jewish people that can thrive and attract new members in the context of an open society because it has vitality, inner strength, and important things to say to our world, especially in this age of environmental crisis—all these are seeds that Zalman planted within us, that we now have to nourish and grow . . .