(The following is from a presentation given by Rabbi Burt Jacobsen of Kehilla, on opening night of the ALEPH Kallah 2009. The presentation addressed the origins of the Jewish renewal movement. Rabbi Burt is one of the founders of this movement.)
Arthur Green had been an undergraduate at Brandeis University in the early 1960’s when he met Rabbi Zalman Schachter and came under his influence. After graduation, Green entered rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, and studied with Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. At the time I was also a rabbinical student at the Seminary. Art and I became friends during those years, in part because we were both connected to Heschel. Art introduced me to kabbalah and became a kind of rebbe for me. He also introduced me to Reb Zalman and to LSD. A new world opened up that was to radically alter the direction of my life.
After my ordination in 1966, I went to Columbus, Ohio to work in the field of Jewish education. In the Spring of 1968, I received a long distance call from Art. “We’re going to do it, Burt,” he says, “We’re going to start an intentional Jewish spiritual community in the Boston Area this coming Fall. Will you join us?”
It is a good time in my life. Should I give up my job and move to Boston to join this utopian venture? Will I have to give up some of my newly emerging personal autonomy to a community? I am not at all certain, but I call Art back and say yes—I will come. In August I pack all my stuff and move to Cambridge.
Havurat Shalom—the first havurah—was special and unique. My friend David Roskies has written: “What one saw of a Sabbath morning on Franklin Street in Cambridge was a roomful of beautiful Jews, bearded men in jeans and open shirts, long-haired women in peasant blouses and skirts, sitting on the floor chanting Hasidic niggunim. . . We had created a neohasidic utopia—small synagogue, songs, prayers, meals and all . . .” We agree to be members for at least three years, and to live within walking distance of the havurah. There are intense classes, experimental forms of davenen, silent meals, retreats in the country. And there are powerful anti-war actions, even though some of the members are apolitical. It’s an exciting moment in time.
A few snapshots of the Jewish counter-culture as I experienced it.
Item: Members take turns leading Shabbes morning services, but more often than not it is either Reb Zalman or I. Zalman would lead an ecstatic davenen, and I would harmonize with him. The next week I would lead, coming up with a novel nusach (liturgical music) that neither I nor anyone else had ever heard before, and Zalman would harmonize.
Item: One Shabbes the parasha focused on korbanot, sacrifices. Before the service Zalman sets up a hibachi in the prayer room, and we offer vegetable burnt offerings during the service!
Item: I’m traveling with a friend on one of the New England freeways, high on acid. I begin to experience the freeway as a map of the sefirot (the ten divine dimensions of the kabbalah). Every sign points to a place in the mystical Tree of Life. Oh my God! For sure the sefirot are not merely symbols or concepts! They are places in the soul, places in the universe!
Item: There are so many brilliant people in the havurah. Secretly I feel inferior. What am I doing here among these great intellects? Item: The members of Havurat Shalom are all men. Two women took classes, but essentially wives and girlfriends are appendages. During the third year, 1970, the women demand an encounter group. The stuff hits the fan. Questions about gender equality, gender relations, sex. Questions about democracy versus charismatic leadership. After that, things would never be quite the same way again at Havurat Shalom. And with the coming of the woman’s movement things would never be quite the same again in America either!
Item: Who am I? Who am I beneath the veneer of being a “rabbi”? Who am I beneath all this Jewish stuff? Is there anything of value at my core? I’ve got to find out. And so I leave Havurat Shalom to have time to myself to figure out my life. I travel to California. I spend time visiting communes, teaching in free schools, living in the Haight-Ashbury, hanging out at Shlomo Carlebach’s House of Love and Prayer, and smoking dope.
Item: I discover the Ba’al Shem Tov through the writings of my teacher, Abraham Joshua Heschel. The encounter is a kind of revelation. It’s clear that the Besht knew a great deal about higher states of consciousness, and how to integrate those higher states into ordinary life. Most important, the Ba’al Shem teaches me how I can uncover the glory of my own existence, and the delight of being a Jew.
Item: It’s 1973. I hear that Reb Zalman is starting a community in Berkeley, the Aquarian Minyan. I attend a seminar taught by Reb Zalman in Zohar. Zalman comes up to me, excited to see me. “Where have you been?” he asks. I give him the lowdown. “Good for you, Burt,” he tells me. “It’s really important for seekers to drop out, to take time to make personal and spiritual discoveries on their own. Just look at what gifts you will bring back to Judaism. . .” And I think. . . isn’t this what Zalman himself did when he left Lubavitch? Isn’t this what the Ba’al Shem Tov did when he spent seven years as a hermit in the mountains?
Item: In 1984 I write a paper on how the American synagogue needs to be transformed. The vision draws 20 people, and we start Kehilla Community Synagogue in Berkeley. Kehilla will be a spiritually-oriented, politically progressive feminist synagogue, open to gays as well as straights, and non-Jews as well as Jews. It will be part of the newly named Jewish Renewal movement. I know precious little about how to organize a community, but the vision draws many talented people who know more than I about creating community, and over the years Kehilla becomes a congregation of some 400 families.