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Founder of Jewish Renewal movement dies at 89

July 3, 2014

BOULDER, Colo. (AP) — Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, a founder of the Jewish Renewal movement and a widely influential figure in contemporary Jewish thought and practice, has died in his Boulder, Colorado, home. He was 89.

Schachter-Shalomi, known to his followers as Reb Zalman, died Thursday morning in his sleep after a long illness, Rivkah Walton of the Alliance for Jewish Renewal said.

Schachter-Shalomi started the renewal movement in the early 1960s as a way to use contemporary religious and political scholarship to re-examine Judaism after the Holocaust. The nondenominational movement draws on Judaism’s prophetic and mystical traditions, and Schachter-Shalomi was heavily influenced by Buddhism, Sufism and the Catholic mystic Thomas Merton.

“They do that, so how can we use that prayer technology, how can we use that spiritual technology to enrich Judaism?” Walton attributed the rabbi as saying.

The movement now includes 45 affiliated congregations and dozens of others not officially affiliated, and Schachter-Shalomi and the alliance have ordained rabbis that serve across the U.S. and the world, she said.

Schachter-Shalomi was born in Poland in 1924 and raised in Vienna. He became part of the Chabad-Lubavitch movement of Hasidic Jews, and his family fled Europe for the U.S. during the Holocaust.

He was ordained in 1947.

The rabbi was among the first in Judaism to ordain women, and he was part of a group of Jewish leaders who traveled to India in 1990 to meet with the Dalai Lama, who was seeking counsel on leading people who live in exile.

He also was a friend of Timothy Leary, known for his advocacy of psychedelic drugs. The rabbi experimented with LSD to see if it could enhance spirituality.

“He wanted to find out, like the Native Americans, if hallucinogens could be used sacramentally,” Walton said. “He didn’t stick with it, but he was willing to find out.”

Schachter-Shalomi introduced a new tallit, or prayer shawl, with the colors of the rainbow arranged according to kabbalistic principles, instead of its traditionally white color with either black or blue stripes.

He also came up with a way of chanting both the liturgy and Torah in English using traditional melodies, instead of the traditional chant patterns in Hebrew.

The rabbi wrote recently that he was not naming a single successor but was calling on all the ordained and laypeople he taught to carry on his work and to work together for Jewish renewal.

“He said that for many years: This is a collective work of the Jewish people,” Walton said.

A funeral service is planned for Friday in Boulder. He did not want people to travel to attend, partly out of concern for the carbon emissions it would expend, Walton said.

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