Jewish Renewal leaders bring chants, environmental awareness to Pittsburgh

Jewish Renewal leaders bring chants, environmental awareness to Pittsburgh

When people ask Rabbi Arthur Waskow what Jewish renewal means, he often tells them to “wrap their head around feminist Chasidism.”
The reaction he gets is the same, he said: “Their eyes spin in their sockets.”
Waskow is one of the country’s pre-eminent leaders of Jewish renewal, the movement that has served to introduce new and progressive ideas to mainstream Judaism through its emphasis on the Torah’s connection to environmental consciousness, an openness to gay and lesbian culture and mystical, meditative practices including chanting. Jewish renewal first gained traction in Jewish communities in the late 1960s and early ’70s with the work of Polish Rabbi Zalman M. Schachter-Shalomi.
Waskow and his wife, Rabbi Phyllis Berman, have worked spreading Jewish renewal ideas throughout Jewish communities for the past 25 years. This weekend, they will be at Rodef Shalom Congregation for a Shabbaton of meditation and chanting, workshops and discussions.
But how will renewal rabbis fit in with a Reform synagogue community?
“I think they’ll feel at home with this congregation more than they’ll feel like outsiders,” said Greg Siegle, chair of Rodef Shalom’s Lifelong Learning Committee.
Waskow and Berman will lead a “Soul Food Service” Friday night, followed by a special chanting service and afternoon workshop on Saturday. On Sunday, the two will lead a discussion called “Compassion for all Creatures: An Ethical Perspective.”
“Like any synagogue, there are lots of different people at Rodef,” said Siegle. “Many people fit very well with Jewish renewal.”
One reason is simply that, “Jewish renewal is not a denomination of Judaism,” said David Goldstein, leader of Pittsburgh’s Tikkun Chant Circle. “I look at it as incorporating a lot of traditions of Judaism that have not been part of the mainstream for quite a long time, like mysticism and more creative ways of entering into prayer, like yoga.”
To Waskow, Jewish renewal’s informality is best summed by its official prayer book: There isn’t one.
“There’s not a single prayer book that is officially the Jewish renewal machzur. In a Conservative or Reconstructionist synagogue, you get it from headquarters, and that’s it. Lots of photocopying and the Internet has made everything much easier,” said Waskow from his office at The Shalom Center in Philadelphia — one of the leading Jewish renewal organizations along with Aleph: The Alliance for Jewish Renewal.
New renewal ideas begin at a grassroots level in individual communities and are exchanged between chavurot (small groups of studying, praying and socializing Jews).
In Pittsburgh, it’s uncertain just how deeply renewal ideas and practices have permeated the city’s largely contemporary, mainstream Jewish community.
“There are pockets of Jewish renewal that are happening in places,” said Goldstein, citing Temple Sinai’s Neshama Center for Jewish Spirituality as well as his chanting circles at both Temple Sinai and Rodef Shalom. Elsewhere, the Ohr Nistar Center for Spiritual Friendship, led by Rabbi Adalah (Adriane) Caplowe features meditations, chants, services and spirit body movements held all around the city.
Though Caplowe could not be reached for this story, she wrote that Waskow and Berman “bring wonderful Torah teachings, which nourish the soul” in an e-mail.
“I think that Jewish renewal has followed more urban locations,” said Goldstein. Indeed, strong renewal communities exist in Philadelphia, New York and throughout California, but also in more Pittsburgh-sized towns such as Denver and Boulder in Colorado.
“Pittsburgh and Cleveland have huge Jewish communities, but they’re more traditional,” said Goldstein. “The city is just waiting for somebody to take a leadership role and be more organized about it.”
A visit from two of the biggest names in Jewish renewal couldn’t hurt, of course.
“In the techie world, people talk about early adopters,” Waskow said about people always looking for the newest technology. “Jewish renewal appears to people who, in their kishkas, are early adopters, looking toward creative new energies. People who sometimes feel that conventional Jewish life can be kind of deadening. We’re looking for a much more lively, music-filled, energetic prayer life.”
Renewal practices aren’t just additions to Jewish life, but adaptations. During a traditional Torah service, one person is called to read an aliya before the Torah is read. Waskow said that he seeks to relate each Torah portion to the congregation’s everyday life and physically bring them into the ritual.
“If we’re reading the passage where the Israelites stand at the edge of the Red Sea, they’re uncertain what to do. They’re facing a big choice,” said Waskow. “We might invite people in the congregation facing a major life decision to come up and join the Torah in its moment. Are we going to cross the Red Sea or not? They become part of the Torah, and the Torah becomes a part of them.”
Jewish renewal rabbis have also been progressive in Judaism’s view toward homosexuality. The movement had begun arguing for gay men and lesbians to become rabbis in the early 1980s, well before even the Reconstructionist Movement opened its seminary to people regardless of sexual orientation in 1984.
Often at the forefront of progressive Jewish thought, Waskow hailed the Jewish renewal movement as “the Jewish experimental center.”
“We’re the research and development department of the Jewish people,” he said. “We test out ideas. Sometimes what we try works and appeals to the people. Sometimes it doesn’t.”

(Justin Jacobs can be reached at

read more: