The Light of Jewish Renewal
By Debbie Ellison

As the Jewish people of Biblical times wandered in the wilderness for forty years, many Jews today wander in the spiritual wilderness, searching for a way out of their confusion. Many Jews, not finding the spiritual fulfillment they seek in traditional Judaism, have turned away from their religion, denying their birthrights in favor of their quest for religious meaning. Many of these Jewish seekers are now returning “home,” finding in the Jewish Renewal movement that which they were unaware existed in Judaism, a bridge between traditional Judaism and the mysticism and spiritual depth for which they search.

Jewish Renewal is a transdenominational movement blending Judaism's mystical and prophetic traditions. It is an all-inclusive, “hands-on” Judaism that stresses a personal, creative approach to practicing Judaism. Its experiential practices include meditation, chanting, dancing, singing, and an emphasis on direct spiritual experience and Kabbalistic (Jewish mystical) teachings. Actually these practices are nothing new in Judaism, but are ancient beliefs, long “hidden.” Jewish Renewal has renewed these practices and made them accessible, stressing our oneness with God, social justice, gender and sexual equality, and ecology and planetary transformation.

Jewish Renewal is based on the teachings of Rabbis Zalman Schachte - Shalomi and Shlomo Carlebach, both trained in the Lubavitch Chassidic movement, which is derived from mystical Jewish teachings. Both later founded their own religious organizations which began a worldwide movement called Jewish Renewal.

Reb (Rabbi) Zalman, as he is affectionately called, founded B'Nai Or Religious Fellowship (Sons of Light) in 1962. The organization later evolved into P'Nai Or (Faces of Light), and currently operates as Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. Aleph states it is “dedicated to reclaiming the Jewish people's sacred purpose of partnership with the Divine in the inseparable tasks of “tikkun olam” (Hebrew for “healing the world”) and “tikkun halev” (Hebrew for “healing our hearts”). Jewish Renewal helps heal the world by promoting justice, freedom, responsibility, caring for all life and the earth that sustains all life.”

Ten years ago, the Network of Jewish Renewal Communities (NJRC) was formed. The tremendous growth demonstrates the strong need within the Jewish community for a more experiential approach. One of those communities is the Atlanta Center for Experiential Judaism (CEJ). CEJ was founded in early 2000 by Jacob Kabb and Joel Rachelson and grew out of their personal search for spiritual meaning in a Jewish context. “Jewish Renewal feels like a spiritual home for my soul,” Rachelson explains, “in that it is inclusive and accepting, non-hierarchical, and offers a mystical approach to Judaism.”

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In July 2001, Aleph sponsored its biennial weekend called Kallah (Hebrew for “gathering”). A shared interest and enthusiasm for starting a Jewish Renewal community in Atlanta brought together several Atlanta Kallah attendees. After returning to Atlanta, a steering committee was formed to expand the Atlanta Center for Experiential Judaism and develop Jewish Renewal events and education.

Rabbi Michael Lerner, in his book, Jewish Renewal - A Path to Healing and Transformation, describes the movement. “Whenever you find a community of people who are actually witnessing the existence of God and who are challenging the world of oppression in the name of this God, there you find renewal energy. Whenever you have people who understand themselves as part of the people whose task it is to be partners with God in the transformation of the world, who simultaneously approach that task with awe, wonder, and radical amazement at the grandeur of the universe, and rejoice in God's presence that fills the entire universe, there you have renewal energy... Renewal becomes Jewish renewal when it is brought into the framework of the historical experience of the Jewish people, commits itself to Jewish rituals and traditions, seeks to rediscover God's voice through the medium of the Torah tradition, and shares love for, compassion toward, and attachment to the Jewish people.”

The goal of the Atlanta Center for Experiential Judaism, according to Kabb and Rachelson, is to create a community, open to all, focusing on experiencing a deeper connection to Jewish spirituality and mysticism. Connecting with God in a personal and deeply meaningful way and sharing the joy of being Jewish with like-minded people is what the Center is all about. Sharing his vision of the Center, Kabb says, “Jewish Renewal provides a mystical connection in line with traditional Judaism. In the past, Jewish Renewal wasn't as accessible as it is now, and we are working toward providing as many resources as possible to help people learn about Jewish Renewal and Jewish spirituality.”

The Atlanta community began with a few people and has since grown and expanded. Monthly events include Chanting with Drumming and a Kabbalat Shabbat (Sabbath service with a mystical approach). Other events are being planned.

Debbie Ellison is a freelance writer and contact for the Jewish Renewal Center. She can be reached at