Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, has died at 89 in Boulder, Colo. His wife, Eve Ilsen, announced the news on the online journal that the family was using to chronicle Schachter-Shalomi’s health complications throughout the month
The famed spiritual leader was born in Poland in 1924. His family fled to Vienna, them Belgium, then various other countries before arriving in New York in 1943. Schachter-Shalomi joined the Lubavitch branch of Orthodox Judaism, and in his early twenties was ordained as a rabbi.
In the late 1960s, he began embracing more liberal elements of Judaism and moving away from the Lubavitch movement, ultimately leaving it entirely. While still in the movement, though, he famously took LSD with Timothy Leary at an ashram in Massachusetts (“better than schnapps”), seeking the Rebbe’s blessing beforehand. He would go on to become one of the founders of the Jewish Renewal movement, which encourages a more spiritual, meditative practice and personal connection with God.
Tablet contributor Beth Kissileff wrote in March about a new book on what Schachter-Shalomi called his “December years,” as well as her encounters with the charismatic rabbi growing up at the Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia, PA:
In a sense, Schachter-Shalomi is the Zelig of the Jewish world: He has been present at every moment in 20th- and now 21st-century Jewish history—whether in Poland or Boro Park, Berkeley or his current home in Boulder, Colo. In a new book, The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery, he tells his life story to veteran journalist and writer Sara Davidson. The book provides a nice interplay between the two, with the rabbi telling his story to the journalist during their meetings every Friday for two years, and the author sharing her own spiritual struggles as well. The book also includes a series of 12 exercises to assist readers with the task of getting a grip on their own mortality, ranging from “Give Thanks” to “Kvetch to God” to finally “Letting Go.”
The December Project is full of the “great questions” that Schachter-Shalomi is famous for asking and descriptions of some of his meditative practices and techniques. The rabbi tells his story and also gives spiritual advice to Davidson as a seeker and devotee. Davidson, in return, balances her own struggles with her career and the death of her mother with the struggles of the once-vital rabbi as he is aging and becoming physically more frail during what he calls his “December years.”
May his memory be a blessing.
Correction: A previous version of this post stated that Schachter-Shalomi was ordained by Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the seventh Lubavitcher Rebbe.
Stephanie Butnick is deputy editor of Tablet Magazine and a host of the Unorthodox podcast.