By BERNIE BELLAN
It was billed as an evening that would be devoted to “Rabbi Zalman Schachter and the Winnipeg origins of the Jewish Renewal Movement”.
Like just about everything else associated with the late Rabbi Schachter (who died in 2014 at the age of 90), it was an evening not without controversy.
The Jewish Heritage Centre promoted the program, which was held Monday, Dec. 12, in the Multipurpose Room of the Asper Campus, as part of “its synagogue series connected with the Synagogues Exhibit at the Asper Campus.”
With the ever-clever Prof. Dan Stone serving as host, the audience of over 100 was treated to a series of reminiscences about Rabbi Schachter’s 19 years spent in Winnipeg (from 1956-75) - a time that paralleled the advent of the “New Age” movement, also a time during which the use of hallucinogenic drugs became highly popular among young people.
The evening featured three main speakers: Rabbi Alan Green, who was given his “smichah” by Rabbi Schachter; Prof. Justin Jaron Lewis, an expert on Hasidism and the organizer of an interview project centering around Rabbi Schachter’s time in Winnipeg; and Alexandra Granke, a graduate student at the University of Manitoba in the Department of Religion, whose Masters thesis dealt with the influence Winnipeg’s Jewish community had on Rabbi Schachter’s thinking.
There was also a contribution from Murray (Moish) Goldenberg, who was a protégé of Rabbi Schachter’s. Goldenberg read a poem devoted to the late rabbi’s memory.
Following the speakers’ presentations, Dan Stone invited anyone in the audience who wanted to tell of their own experience with Rabbi Schachter to speak up. One by one individuals told stories about how Rabbi Schachter touched their lives.
Lest anyone reading this think that the evening was nothing more than a love-in for Rabbi Schachter, however, there were some negative notes struck as well. Although he was undoubtedly a man of great charisma, Zalman Schachter had his detractors. Two themes mentioned several times, both by the featured speakers and audience members, coursed through recollections of his time spent in Winnipeg: his faithlessness when it came to his relationships with women, and his overt championing of drug use.
Following is an account of some of what was said:
Rabbi Green who, Dan Stone told the audience, will be leaving Winnipeg in 2018 to move to Fairfield, Iowa – the centre of transcendental meditation, described first meeting Rabbi Schachter in Los Angeles in the 1970s.
In time, Green became a devout follower of Rabbi Schachter’s, culminating in his receiving his smichah from Rabbi Schachter in Philadelphia, where he found the rabbi “surrounded by a bunch of old hippies” – some of whom “were leaders of the New Left in the 1960s.”
“My first class with him,” Rabbi Green said, “was kind of a Sinai movement for me. It literally took my breath away.”
Rabbi Schachter had a multitude of interests, including “Jewish mysticism, humanism, and modern psychology” among others, noted Rabbi Green. As well, “he was fluent in many languages.”
What impressed Rabbi Green quite deeply, he said, was how Rabbi Schachter “brought together Judaism and Indian mysticism”.
“How often we let fear get in the way of Jewish mysticism,” Rabbi Green said Rabbi Schachter once told him.
Turning to the subject of the Jewish Renewal Movement and Rabbi Schachter’s central role in that movement, Rabbi Green observed that “there are now hundreds of Jewish Renewal rabbis – most of them ordained by Rabbi Schachter.”
It was in Winnipeg, Rabbi Green noted, that Rabbi Schachter “created the first rainbow talit”. It was also here that “the interface between psychedelic drugs and spiritual practice” first took root among Rabbi Schachter and his many followers.
Rabbi Green commented, however, “that I always found this phase of Rabbi Schachter’s life to be somewhat embarrassing”.
Following Rabbi Green’s presentation, Justin Jaron Lewis took the podium to offer some observations about Rabbi Schachter’s time in Winnipeg. Lewis noted that Rabbi Schachter’s own autobiography has relatively little to say about the time he spent here, even though it was a fairly lengthy period. As well, the Wikipedia article about the rabbi barely mentions his time spent in Winnipeg, Lewis also observed.
It was partly because of that vacuum, Lewis explained that, at the behest of his colleague in the Judaic Studies program at the University of Manitoba, Ben Baader, Lewis embarked upon the creation of an oral history project devoted to gathering “memories of Rabbi Schachter during his Winnipeg years.”
With contributions from 28 different individuals, all of whom whose lives were touched by Rabbi Schachter at some point during his time spent in Winnipeg – as the director of Hillel, as the representative of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, as a Professor of Religion, and in the many other roles he played, interviews were gathered. Those interviews now reside in a collection put together at the University of Colorado in Boulder (where Rabbi Schachter spent the final years of his life).
(If you would like to listen to any of those interviews simply Google “Winnipeg Jewish renewal”. According to Lewis, however, some of those interviews are not entirely positive in the impressions some interviewees had of Rabbi Schachter.)
The fact that Winnipeg seems to have been almost deliberately obscured in any writing, either by Rabbi Schachter himself or others writing about him, is somewhat of a puzzle for Lewis. After all, he observed, it was here that Rabbi Schachter “began the chaotic and colourful phase of Judaism that became so important in his later years.”
Perhaps it was the shroud of controversy that surrounded him while he was here that led to Rabbi Schachter’s downplaying the time he spent here but, as Lewis suggested, “over time the world has forgiven him even though he left Winnipeg under a cloud”.
It was left to Alexandra Granke to fill in some of the blanks that others have found when it comes to knowing more about the time Rabbi Schacter spent here.
In analyzing Rabbi Schachter’s often controversial stay in Winnipeg, Granke observed that “there was an air of inevitability about Rabbi Schachter’s break with the Lubavitch movement.”
Granke referred to an interview given by Abe Anhang, who talked about Rabbi Schachter’s use of LSD as the reason for his departure from the Chabad movement.
“His use of LSD runs through many of the other interviews,” Granke noted. Yet, she was “surprised by the relative nonchalance of many of the interviewees” toward Rabbi Schachter’s prolific drug use.
In fact, one interviewee mentioned how she was first introduced to “weed, mescaline, and cocaine” by Rabbi Schachter.
Rather than simply dwell on this aspect of Rabbi Schachter’s life though, Granke observed that many interviewees spoke of how he “opened up his group of followers to a different understanding of Judaism.”
“Doing drugs for him was not something fun,’ Granke noted. Rather, “for him it was about a way to reach a higher level of spirituality.”
Turning to yet another oft-criticized component of his life, Granke did refer to Rabbi Schachter’s having “fathered ten children with a variety of women.”
Yet, despite his somewhat notorious reputation, Granke suggested that others “were willing to overlook his lapses in moral judgment because he was so accepting of others.”
Although Reb Zalman, as he came to be known affectionately by his devoted followers, may have “been the opposite of what was expected of rabbis in Winnipeg,” his “dedication to people” is what seems to have been the mark that he left most often upon others.
“Reb Zalman always had time for others,” was a common refrain through the interviews, Granke said.
As one interviewee suggested, Rabbi Schachter’s form of spirituality, which he formulated while he was in Winnipeg, was “Buddhist chakra meeting Jewish sphirot”.
“He was a Jewish practitioner in a universal soul,” said one interviewee.
Granke referred to the interview given by Len Udow, who suggested that the pain of Rabbi Schachter’s wartime experience (when he fled first from Vichy France, then to Belgium, where he was “one step ahead of the Gestapo”) dissipated during moments in which he was engaged in prayer. “It was as if all the pain of the war was dispelled by the sudden connection with his many ancestors.”
Murray Goldenberg mentioned Rabbi Schachter’s having taught him the blessing for marijuana: “shehakol neheyeh b’dvaro” (who brings about everything by his word).
Yet, as I noted earlier, not everyone was so rosy-hued in their memories of Rabbi Schachter. David Wilder suggested that “the reason he (Rabbi Schachter) doesn’t mention Winnipeg in his writings is because of his situation with his family. His kids didn’t speak to him,” Wilder said (because of their father’s having left their mother to take up with the daughter of a well-known Winnipeg radio announcer).
Justin Jaron Lewis did say though, that “the kids reconciled with him at the end.”
As audience members after audience member spoke up to recall their own experience of Rabbi Schachter, it was easy to understand the enormous impact that this man had on so many Winnipeggers. As Jerry Cohen said, “There was no greater influence on my life Jewishly than Reb Zalman. He was a great influence to many of us in those early years in Winnipeg.”