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.
Reb Zalman did not plan to start a new Jewish spiritual movement. He wanted to bring a spiritual dimension to all the denominations of American Jewry. But his charisma and his amazing gifts were so powerful that the people who studied and prayed with him began to form clusters and communities in different parts of the country.
During the heyday of the San Francisco counter culture, Reb Zalman often travelled to the Bay Area to teach young Jews about Jewish spirituality and mysticism, and to introduce them to his innovative forms of Jewish prayer and meditation. The seminars were held at the Hillel House on the U.C. Berkeley campus. A group of people who attended a seminar in 1973 decided to initiate ongoing Friday evening services on a regular basis. The core group founded what Zalman called “the floating crap game,” because it met in different folk’s homes. It was later re-named the Aquarian Minyan of Berkeley. The term “Jewish renewal” had not yet been invented yet; this new hippie-inspired phenomenon was called “Native American Judaism,” by Barry Barkan, one of the Minyan’s founders.
I was living in San Francisco at the time, and I felt alienated from traditional Judaism. Nevertheless, I knew Zalman and I decided to attend one of the seminars. When Zalman saw me enter the room he rushed over and welcomed me. And he invited me to hang out with him during the lunchtime break.
As we walked around the campus, Zalman asked where I had been these past several years, and what I was doing with my life. I told him that that traditional Judaism had become an oppressive burden to me, and that I needed to get away from the fear-based, law-abiding approach to Judaism. I had been looking into other spiritual paths, including Hinduism. Zalman congratulated me on my courageousness, and he told me that he agreed that Judaism needed a major overhaul, and then he blessed me. It was a life-changing moment for me. I joined the Aquarian Minyan a few months after it began, and soon became a leader of the community.
In 1975, Zalman moved from Winnipeg to Philadelphia and founded a community known as B’nai Or, “Sons of Light.” The group later changed its name to the more gender neutral, P’nai Or, meaning “Faces of Light”, and it continues under this name. At this time Zalman was also teaching at Temple University and at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, where Rabbi Arthur Green was president.
By 1993 P’nai Or had morphed into an international organization known as ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Reb Zalman founded ALEPH’s ordination programs. To date ALEPH has ordained well over one hundred and fifty rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors. Reb Zalman had come to be seen as a preeminent Jewish spiritual master by Buddhist and Sufi teachers, and had actually been ordained as a sheik in one of the Sufi orders. In later years, Zalman became the first non-Buddhist teacher to hold the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which had been founded by the prominent Tibetan Buddhist teacher, Chogyam Trungpa.
In 1994, when Zalman turned seventy, he began a new phase of his life. He and his wife Eve Ilsen were living in Boulder, Colorado, and he invited a group of about thirty of his students, myself included, to a retreat center near Boulder to form what he called his “rabbinic cabinet.” He told us that some of the contemporary spiritual teachers with whom he was familiar had not made adequate provision for what would happen to their legacies after they had passed from this world, and that he wanted to assure a smooth leadership transition in Jewish Renewal. He had decided to hand over the numerous aspects of his legacy to his students, and invited each of us to take responsibility for some aspect of his work, developing it in new ways.
Zalman honored all of us through a powerful ritual of transition, and in this way he made room for his students to take responsibility for the future of our movement. This was kind of revolutionary—a living master ‘giving away’ power and influence. This action had a powerful effect on all of us. Rabbi Marcia Prager took the helm of the ordination program. I worked with her to update the rabbinic curriculum. Rabbi Pam Frydman later started an association of renewal rabbis and spiritual leaders, known as OHALAH, which now has over two hundred members. Other rabbis took on new roles in the movement.