HomeFeaturesThe late Rabbi Zalman Schachter’s time in Winnipeg recalled...

(This article originally appeared in the Dec. 21, 2016 issue of The Jewish Post & News) 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.
As Granke explained, she was “the first person to have listened to all 28 interviews about Rabbi Schachter” that Winnipeggers gave. (By the way, if you have something you’d like to tell about Rabbi Schachter, you can still get in touch with Justin Jaron Lewis, who said he would love to hear from anyone else who might have something to contribute to the oral history project. He can be reached at Justin_Lewis@umanitoba.ca .)
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.”


#1 Mr. — Ernest Seinfeld 2017-07-09 11:15

This is the first time I am reading about this rabbi. I also read an article about him today in the Jerusalem Post and made the following comment:

“I remember Rabbi Schaechter as a fellow student in Vienna at the Sperlgymnasium (high school, the same Sigmund Freud atttended) in 1937.

In Austria classes in one’s religion were mandatory.

He kept trying to upstage our religion teacher by frequent interrupting him with “Raschi said”. 

The rest of the students who had no idea of the teaching of Raschi and hardly were even aware of this great Talmud scholar, after a while gave him the nickname ‘Raschi’. The teacher obviously did not enjoy these interruptions but remained quiet and polite.

Ernest Seinfeld


I attended three years with him in the same classes. He sat always in the first row and tried to ‘shine’. He craved for attention, a trait his fellow students did not exactly find appealing.

In our January 18, 2017 issue we also printed this letter from members of Rabbi Schachter’s family, in response to the original article:

Response to article on Reb Zalman Schachter
We are the widow and children of Reb Zalman Schachhter-Shalomi, z”l. We want to recognize the initiative of the Jewish Heritage Center in convening a public forum honoring our father and Winnipeg origins of the Jewish Renewal Movement. While none of us live in Winnipeg any longer, we treasure the time that the family had in Winnipeg and are sorry that we were unable to be present for this forum. Had we been present, we would have contributed to this retrospective in the following ways.

  1. The article “The late Rabbi Zalman Schachter’s Time in Winnipeg Recalled at Lively Evening Hosted by Jewish Heritage Centre” misstated the tone of his family situation. Our father was wholehearted in his relationship with his wives and children. His marriage breakdowns were certainly not caused by lapses in moral judgment. Divorce almost always is difficult for the marital partners and children. In the case of Reb Zalman and Feigle, the decision to end their marriage was understandable as, much earlier, they recognized that their relationship was unsustainable. They had drifted apart as a result of the differences in their spiritual visions and only intentionally stayed together until their youngest child reached her Bat Mitzvah so that she would have the capacity to deal with family breakdown. None of the children harbor any resentment to children from other mothers. It is a testament to Reb Zalman’s love for his children, and our love for him, the that we are all in touch with one another to share each other’s joy and provide support in times of need.
  2. There is an element of physical harshness in the name Schachter, which has its origins in Shochet (slaughterer). Reb Zalman was someone who was deeply concerned with the increase in violent conflict in the world. He adopted a typical Jewish response to his concerns by adding a name that would bring to our consciousness the need to pursue peace, Shalom. For many years now, he has been known and called Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi.
  3. The relatively limited material in the University of Colorado archives on Jewish Renewal on Reb Zalman’s time in Winnipeg is not based in any way on any deliberate action on his part or because of an alleged cloud causing him to leave the city. Reb Zalman moved to Philadelphia because it had a larger Jewish community and was closer to other large Jewish centers in North America. Reb Zalman had begun providing rabbinic training in Winnipeg, but few students were willing to come to Winnipeg to study. The move to the east coast enabled many more students to access his training and become rabbis. As for the gap in current literature concerning Reb Zalman’s time in Winnipeg, we applaud Professor Lewis’s initiative in collecting oral histories to be added to the archive at the University of Colorado. Regarding the claim that Reb Zalman ignored Winnipeg in his autobiography, it should be noted that 97 pages of the 186 page “My life in Jewish Renewal,” (aside from the Appendices), are devoted to years living in Winnipeg. It is crucial to note, however, that much that happened during this period took place during his numerous travels outside Winnipeg.
    We are aware that some of his views and activities were challenged by some elements of the Winnipeg Jewish community. Reb Zalman, as we all are, was human. However, for those who focused their comments at the forum on his imperfections, we wonder what standard they were holding him to. On the first Shabbat of the secular year We read Parshat Va’yigash. The story of our ancestor Ya’acov is drawing to a close. Yes, Ya’acov had issues with his wives, with his children, and with neighbors in the broader community. Those flaws, however, are not the major part of his remembrance. We remember him as a Jewish ancestor whose legacy was that all Jews now are known under Ya’acov’s second name, Yisrae. We are all B’nai Yisrael.
    We, his widow, his daughters and sons, his grandchildren and great-grandchildren, all feel that we have been blessed by being the spouse and offspring of one of the 21 century’s greatest rabbis. Each of us, in our own way, is seeking to continue the contribution to society that he has made. May our actions and the actions of Winnipeg Jewry give our father’s neshama an aliyah!
    Blessings,The Widow and all the children of Rabbi Schachter-Shalomi
    Eve, Miriam, Rabbi Shalom, Josef, Yale, Chana Tina, Jonathan, Lisa, Shalvi, Rabbi Shlomo Barya, Yotam & Rossi

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