Rabbi was icon of New Age Judaism

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, left, with his son, Toronto labour lawyer Rabbi Shalom Schachter in Toronto in 2011.  Frances Kraft photo

He was known for helping spiritually bereft Jews reconnect to Judaism after the Holocaust, for his ravenous interfaith curiosity, and for fusing elements of eastern religion with Jewish mysticism, Chassidism and contemporary psychology.

His followers saw him as someone who made Judaism relevant to their lives.

Considered the father of Jewish Renewal – a movement that aims to reinvigorate Judaism with kabbalistic, chassidic, musical and meditative practices – Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, renowned author, teacher and spiritual leader, died peacefully in his sleep July 3 at his home in Boulder, Colo. He was 89.

As per his wishes, “Reb Zalman,” as his followers called him, was buried without a casket, cloaked simply in a white kittel and his father’s tallit, sprinkled with ashes brought from Auschwitz and covered in white linen.

Though deeply beloved by many, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi was also something of a divisive figure in modern Judaism, disparaged by some for straying from the tenets of Orthodoxy and exploring Jewish spiritual awakening in unconventional ways, such as through yoga or the use of LSD.

The rabbi’s Canadian connection was strong: he taught at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg for almost 20 years, and five of his children currently live in Canada.

“He helped each of his children discern their unique, divine purpose in this life, and he gave us the gift of each other,” said Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s son Shalom Schachter, 66, a retired labour lawyer who lives in Toronto and is a part-time rabbi at Beth Tzedec Congregation.

“Beyond the immediate family, like [the Biblical] Avram, who became Avraham, Reb Zalman became a father to multitudes of spiritual-seekers,” his son said. “Reb Zalman recognized the divine in every human being he encountered, and he helped everyone he encountered to recognize the divine within themselves.”

Born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi and his family fled the Nazis in 1938, escaping first to Belgium, then France, North Africa, the Caribbean and, eventually, in 1941, to New York City.

It was in Belgium that his interest in the Chabad movement was piqued, leading him to join a Lubavitch yeshiva in Brooklyn, N.Y., in 1941 and to receive rabbinic ordination from the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva in 1947.

Soon after, at the direction of the Sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi and his friend, the notable, late Rabbi Shlomo Carelbach, began visiting college campuses to try to re-engage disaffected young Jews.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi became a congregational rabbi in Fall River, Mass. and, subsequently, in New Bedford.

He studied psychology of religion at Boston University and following this, took up a post in the department of religion at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, which he held from 1956 to 1975.

“I first met Rabbi Schachter in Winnipeg in 1959, when he was the director of the Hillel House at the University of Manitoba,” recounted Sol Katz, a Montreal resident who said he was deeply influenced by the rabbi many years ago in Winnipeg. 

“He loved people, all kinds… I found him to be the most charismatic, innovative and unconventional rabbi I had ever met. He was infinitely cheerful and accepting of everybody. About him he gathered students and invited them for Oneg Shabbatot at his home… He brought Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, who was at the time unknown, to Winnipeg, where he blew us away with his spiritual songs… I experienced my first Shabbaton retreat under [Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi’s] guidance. He injected a Judaism based on love, introspection, acceptance of all people, and a yearning for God.”

The rabbi earned his doctor of Hebrew letters from Hebrew Union College and was instrumental in growing the 1960s chavurah movement, which rejected institutionalized synagogue worship. He helped launch Havurat Shalom, a small, unaffiliated and egalitarian chavurah, or fellowship, in Somerville, Mass.

Though he had, by that point, parted ways with the Lubavitch movement over what it saw as his controversial interest in secular culture and other religions, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi continued to teach the elements of Chassidism that spoke to him, such as its experiential facets.

He saw Chassidism as a great spiritual movement, but was interested in creating a liberal version of it, one that interweaved customs ancient to Judaism with alternative practices such as meditation, ecstatic dance and playing musical instruments during prayers.

He promoted feminism, ritual equality for men and women, inclusion of gays and lesbians and reconciliation of kashrut with contemporary environmental ethics.

In 1975, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi became professor of Jewish mysticism and psychology of religion at Philadelphia’s Temple University, where he remained until his retirement in 1987.

Critical of the notion that Jews have access to a superior religious truth, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi devoured the wisdom of other religions.

He studied Sufism; he was inspired by examples of Catholicism’s Trappist spirituality, the Dead Sea Scrolls and Chassidism to found the neo-chassidic B’nai Or Religious Fellowship; and, in 1990, he took part in a series of historic dialogues about Diaspora survival with the Dalai Lama.

In his later years, Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi became known as the “Boulder rebbe,” seeing students in his basement study and devoting his energy to preparing himself and his followers for his death. Unsatisfied with what he saw as traditional Judaism’s approach to aging, he sought to re-imagine it as something other than just decline.

The rabbi’s impact was far-reaching, extending beyond his circle of followers. Some of the rituals he introduced that were initially deemed inappropriate, such as playing musical instruments during services, have been incorporated into other strands of mainstream Judaism.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi married four times and fathered 11 children, one of whom was conceived via a sperm donation to a lesbian rabbi. His other children living in Canada are Joseph Schachter of Calgary, and Yale Schachter, Jonathan Schachter and Lisa Vito, all of Vancouver.

He is survived by his children and by his wife, Eve Ilsen, whom he married in 1994.

Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi published a number of books, including Spiritual Intimacy: A Study of Counseling in Hasidism (1991), From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older (1995) and Gate to the Heart: A Manual of Contemplative Jewish Practice (2013).