A year and a half after the death of Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, the ordination program he founded is experiencing a growth spurt.
The program that produces rabbis affiliated with the Jewish Renewal movement has 90 students, with 25 of them in its newest class.
“That’s the largest class we ever had,” said Shoshanna Schechter-Shaffin, a former Kemp Mill resident, alumna of the Charles E. Smith Jewish Day School and executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. The program is growing by “leaps and bounds. I really do see this as a trend. I believe it is not a fluke.”
Jewish Renewal blends “the joy of Chasidim, the chavurah movement, spirituality, meditation and movement,” said Schechter-Shaffin. It’s a transdenominational movement that “focuses on spiritual exploration and prayer.”
To Potomac resident Rabbi Evan Krame, who was ordained through Aleph in January, Jewish Renewal is “backward compatible. We have not thrown out our tradition, our history, our laws, but we want to bring them forward to meet the needs of a modern person.”
Krame has always enjoyed being in synagogue, but he didn’t view religion as a career path, choosing law instead. For the past 20 years, he has been active at Congregation Beth El of Montgomery County.
“They had a lay-led minyan that gave people the opportunity to lead,” he said. “I loved that.”
He started taking classes whenever he could and seeking out Jewish professionals for conversation. “I became a Jewish learning junkie,” he said. Someone suggested he look into Aleph’s Davening Leadership Training Institute at a time when he didn’t know what Jewish Renewal was.
In 2009, Krame entered Aleph’s rabbinic ordination program. Unlike other ordination programs, Aleph holds the vast majority of its classes online. But don’t think the students turn on their computer and just go through the motions, said Schechter-Shaffin. “You actually see everyone’s faces. You see the teacher’s face. You can’t hide.”
Several times during the program — which takes between five and eight years to complete, depending on a student’s schedule — students attend residential retreats, including four mandatory weeklong retreats at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Connecticut.
To be accepted into the ordination program, candidates meet with members of Aleph’s faculty and leadership, who determine if the person understands what Jewish Renewal is, shows a commitment to finishing the program and not only taking courses, and demonstrates a willingness to become a Jewish leader, Schechter-Shaffin said.
Once accepted, students take 13-week classes covering topics including the Bible, rabbinic and halachic literature, liturgy, Kabbalah, Jewish thought, philosophy, theology and pastoral counseling, Hebrew and Torah.
They also learn “davenology,” which Schechter-Shaffin described as “a unique Jewish Renewal word” that takes all one’s senses into account during prayer. “That’s where the dancing comes in,” she said, referring to the practice of some people in Jewish Renewal to sway and dance enthusiastically during services.
A student may graduate as a rabbi, cantor, pastor or Hashpa’ah, which she likened to “a spiritual coach.”
Ages of students in Aleph’s ordination program range from 22 to 80. The oldest student is a retired surgeon. “We do have a lot of second-career people, which I think actually makes our classes better. It makes for a richer class,” she said.
Although most of the students begin soon after graduating college, many already have pursued a career before coming to Aleph, she said. “Why do you have to stop your education when you are 40 years old? Why do you have to stop if this has been your lifelong dream?”
Some of graduates go on to have their own pulpits, while others become active in the wider Jewish community. Rabbi Rain Zohav, who received her ordination with Aleph, recently was named the Jewish spiritual advisor at the Interfaith Families Project of Greater Washington.
Krame is not interested in having his own pulpit.
“I toyed with the idea of applying for pulpit jobs,” he said, but he didn’t think he could “affect the most change” in a synagogue.
“I want the opportunity to explore, experiment, get it wrong sometimes and do it safely without the fear of getting kicked out” by a synagogue board, said Krame, who was raised in the Conservative movement in New York.
Instead, he formed the Jewish Studio one year ago with David Abramowitz, a student at Aleph’s cantorial program, and JoHanna Potts, the former CEO of the Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning.
Its Judaism-outside-the-box includes monthly hikes along the Potomac River on Saturday mornings, culminating in a shortened Shabbat service conducted on the rocks.
A recent Shabbat dinner featured scary stories from the Talmud for “Challah-ween.”
The Jewish Studio is geared for people 40 years and above. There is no Hebrew school. “This is adult Judaism,” said Krame. “My intention is not rote for the sake of rote. I want to create a dynamic where people find vibrant Judaism.”
Many paths lead to ordination
There are numerous paths that can be taken to become a rabbi. This year, nine people became rabbis through the ordination program with Jewish Renewal.
Fourteen men and women were ordained at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary in 2015.
At the Reform Movement’s Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion, 32 rabbis were ordained this year, including 12 men and 20 women.
There currently are 250 students enrolled at Yeshiva University’s Rabbi Isaac Elchanan Theological Seminary. Graduation takes place every four years. The last one, in 2014, had a class of 240.