I heard the news today about the passing of an icon in the Jewish community, whose reach exceeded ‘the tribe’ into which he was born. An emissary of peace, an interfaith advocate and a fellow ‘Holy Rascal’, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi took his last breath on this side of the veil and his next on the other. I could list his accomplishments, and they would go on indefinitely, but you can read about them on The Yesod Foundation’s Reb Zalman Legacy Project.
What I would like to share about is the impact he had on my life. I first met Reb Zalman in the early 1980’s when he was Rabbi at what was then called B’nai Or (‘children of light’) Religious Fellowship in Philadelphia which later became P’nai Or (‘faces of light’) Religious Fellowship, and then ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. I was in my 20’s, having been raised attending a Conservative synagogue in the suburban South Jersey town of Willingboro. Formalized ritual, familiar prayers, most in Hebrew. Not particularly egalitarian. At that point, only men were counted in the minyan (a quorum of 10 required to recite certain prayers) and only men could earn the title Rabbi.
What a breath of fresh air to walk into the building that housed the far more liberal shul. I went there initially, accompanied by my parents, my cousin Jody and my childhood friend Bryan. Keep in mind that my dad had been raised Orthodox and although he and my mom were of a bent that supported equal religious rights for women, this was still kind of like landing on a different planet for them. Reb Zalman greeted us, wearing a shtreimel which is a fur hat that Hassidic men sometimes don; seen in this photo. We all gathered on pillows on the floor, arranged in a circle. The service was flowing and incorporated music with tunes livelier than what my parents were accustomed to. Part of it involved walking around the room, making eye contact with each other, holding hands and bowing. At each turn, my father repeated “That’s different. That’s interesting,” and bless his willing heart and adventurous spirit, he did each ritual. He had a sense, I think, that this elder really knew his stuff.
When the service was over, we shared a pot luck vegetarian meal; also out of the norm for my parents, but not so for Jody and Bryan and for me.
When I went to Temple Beth Or in South Florida in the 1990’s, Reb Zalman’s energy followed me, as he was the mentor for Rabbi Rami Shapiro who has remained my friend.
It would be years later that I would have the opportunity to interview him for our publication called Visions. His work had expanded by that point at what he called From Aging to Sage-ing . Although I was nowhere near that stage in my life, I stored the wisdom away for this time at which I really AM an elder with (hopefully) some of my own to add to it.
When I think of Reb Zalman, what will stand out the most, is the engaging laughter and twinkle in his eye, knowing that he got the cosmic joke.
May his memory be for a blessing~
Photo Credit: spectrumjrs.org