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Jewish Renewal

Jewish Renewal

In the late 1960s and early 1970s cataclysmic social changes in the United States brought about marked shifts in the Jewish community as well. The civil rights and black power movements heightened awareness of the importance of group identity, solidarity, and meaning. Young Jews, influenced by these domestic developments and by the events surrounding the Six-Day War in Israel, began to revitalize Jewish religious life. Seeking new forms to replace the synagogue, they organized havurot, small groups for studying, praying, and socializing together. Although occasionally linked to synagogues, these groups rejected institutional structures such as buildings and professional staffs. Their gatherings were informal and participatory, and they focused on intergenerational experiences. The havurah movement remains today a loose confederation of many of these groups. Eschewing institution building, they are coordinated by a national committee that sponsors an annual summer institute.

Building on the havurah movement's commitment to intimacy and participation, Rabbi Zalman Schachter and his followers started B'nai Or (Sons of Light). B'nai Or was organized in the style of the havurah but had a particular religious slant toward what came to be defined as neo-Hasidic Judaism, focusing on the celebratory, joyous, and life-affirming aspects of prayer and ritual and on the Jewish mysticism of kabbalah and Hasidism. Schachter's group also experimented with Eastern mystical traditions and their connections to Jewish mysticism. The teachings of Abraham Joshua Heschel, Martin Buber, and Schachter himself were foundational to B'nai Or. The group held regular prayer services in Philadelphia, and its influence spread as Schachter's teachings became known across the United States and Canada. An annual summer retreat brought adherents together to experience Schachter's charismatic teaching, singing, and prayer and to apply the meditative and spiritual teachings of Sufism and other Eastern traditions to Jewish prayer life.

In 1987, under growing feminist influence, B'nai Or underwent a name change to P'nai Or (from Sons of Light to Faces of Light). Although from its inception accepting of equality for women, P'nai Or grew to be the spiritual home of many women and men who wanted to build a renewal of Judaism based on the insights that Jewish feminists had begun to unearth about Judaism's patriarchal nature. In keeping with its focus on the spiritual, much of the feminist contribution of P'nai Or has been to rewriting liturgy and working toward an ecofeminist approach to the environment.

The environmental focus was also important to another leading thinker associated with Jewish renewal, Arthur Waskow. Waskow is known for his work on peace and justice issues and as a leading proponent of using the midrashic methods of storytelling and interpretation to reinvigorate contemporary Jewish connections to ancient texts. Waskow was the founder of the Shalom Center, a group that was founded to provide a Jewish voice to the antinuclear movement in the 1980s and that continued to work on environmental causes and other peace and justice issues.

In 1993 P'nai Or and the Shalom Center merged to create ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. ALEPH publishes a quarterly journal, New Menorah. It sponsors Elat Chayyim, a Jewish retreat center in upstate New York, where Waskow is in residence and where Schachter teaches. The Jewish Renewal Life Center in Philadelphia provides yearlong programs of study. There is now a network of Jewish Renewal communities, including forty havurah and synagogue affiliates in the United States and Canada. Schachter runs a Spiritual Eldering Institute based in Colorado. ALEPH also coordinates a process for ordaining rabbis.

The Jewish Renewal movement as it exists today has gained many adherents and created institutions to support its growth. Its focus is on renewing Jewish connection to God, understood to be an immanent presence in the world. Jewish history is seen as a series of renewed encounters with God (with the Buberian caveat that those encounters have been "in eclipse"). Prayer is central to Jewish renewal and incorporates chant, meditation, dance, storytelling, and psychological encounters with Torah texts. It incorporates learnings from other spiritual paths, especially forms of Buddhism, Sufism, and New Age Spirituality. It welcomes those who have been marginalized in Jewish life: women, gay men and lesbians, converts, and those who have never been involved in Jewish life but who are seeking new avenues of spiritual expression.

See alsoBuddhism; Civil Rights Movement; Hasidim; Jewish Identity; Jewish Observance; Judaism; Kabbalah; New Age Spirituality; Sufism; Synagogue; Torah.


Petsonk, Judy. Taking Judaism Personally. 1996.

Schachter-Shalomi, Zalman. Paradigm Shift. 1993.

Waskow, Arthur. These Holy Sparks. 1983.

Rebecca T. Alpert

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