Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest

Jewish Renewal has strong roots in the Pacific Northwest going back more than twenty-five years. Its earliest manifestations were in Eugene, Oregon and Vancouver, British Columbia during the mid-to-late 1970s. Although the idealistic 1960s were over, remnants of the counterculture and activist political movements were still alive in those and other centers. Some Jewish individuals who had been deeply affected by 1960s values began looking to their Jewish roots as a vehicle for expressing those values. It was in this context that Rabbis Zalman Schachter and Shlomo Carlebach z”l began to introduce hundreds of young Jewish adults to a more joyous and creative form of Jewish spirituality.

Yitzhak Hankin grew up in Pittsburgh with a early love of Jewish music, prayer, and tradition. After several years as a political activist and classical musician, he began to reconnect with his love of spiritual Judaism partly inspired by Reb Shlomo’s music. This was reinforced later by his early meetings with Reb Zalman. In his early twenties he was drawn to Oregon and moved to Eugene in the early 1970s with his cello and his V.W. bus. He began attending the small Conservative shul, Temple Beth Israel, and, wanting to expand his involvement in Jewish life, began studying with Rabbi Louis Neimand. In the late summer of 1975 Aryeh Hirschfield travelled to Eugene from San Francisco where he had spent most of the previous twelve years. Originally from New York, Aryeh had graduated from a yeshiva High School with a comprehensive Jewish education. After a number of years away from Judaism, he became deeply influenced by Reb Zalman’s teachings during the early 1970s. He encountered Reb Zalman at the Aquarian Minyan in Berkeley and also had a powerful experience at Reb Shlomo’s House of Love and Prayer in 1973. Shortly after arriving in Eugene Aryeh decided to check out the local shul on Shabbat Bereshit. When the Rabbi discovered that Aryeh was a musician he immediately introduced him to Yitzhak Hankin.

There was an instant connection and the two soon began playing music and performing together. They also began composing songs during this period, to a large degree inspired by Reb Shlomo. They loved davvenen and both understood the sixties. Following the death of Rabbi Neimand on Tish’s B’av 1976, Aryeh and Yitzhak were asked to take over leading services which they did for almost a year. During that period they turned the “sleepy conservative shul into a wild renewal place” attracting many university students who were getting high on the music. But there was some resistance and a few humorous moments. One Friday night Aryeh, recently returned from an inspiring weekend with Zalman, opened the service with a nigun and explained how the Hasidim would sing a nigun over and over for hours, when one congregant stood up and shouted: “We came here for a service and we’re going to do a service!” Aryeh and Yitzhak also began sowing the seeds of egalitarianism by subtly inviting women to participate.

The following year Yitzhak, Aryeh, and Judith Hankin began hosting Friday night gatherings at their communal house. These evenings, referred to as the “Oregon Minyan” included davvenen, pot luck dinners, and singing nigunim until late into the night. Aryeh and Yitzhak also took their music on the road during this period, performing concerts, singing for weddings in Portland, and leading services in Salem. Shonna Husbands and Jesse Rappaport began bringing Reb Zalman to Eugene for Shabbatons, and Aryeh began studying seriously with Reb Zalman in 1977.

In late 1976 Yitzhak and Shonna attended the World Symposium on Humanity in Vancouver at which Reb Shlomo inspired the gathering with his music. There they met Hana and Mordechai Wosk who put them in touch with Daniel and Hanna Siegel who were about to settle in Vancouver. Daniel, originally from New York, had grown up with a Yeshiva education and then spent two years at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College. Looking for a more spiritually oriented practice than he had found in mainstream Judaism, he and Hanna spent a year in the wilderness of British Columbia before he began studying with Reb Zalman in the early 1970s. Daniel was the first Rabbi ordained by Reb Zalman and served several Conservative synagogues including Victoria, Richmond, and North Vancouver during the 1970s. Hanna began weaving tallitot and composing original melodies for various parts of the service with Reb Zalman’s encouragement and inspired by Reb Shlomo.

In 1977 Shonna Husbands-Hankin organized the first of many regional retreats. Held in Washington state, it attracted 120 participants from San Francisco to Vancouver. One summer solstice retreat with Reb Zalman at Deadwood, Oregon featured a “sweats and mikvahs” sharing of cultural practice with native American teachers. Aryeh and Yitzhak performed a memorable concert in Vancouver in 1978 which drew the Eugene and Vancouver renewal communities closer together. Another significant event for the region was a Shavuot Retreat in 1982 at Camp Solomon Schechter organized primarily by Hanna Tiferet Siegel at which Hanna was given the title of Eshet Chazon/Woman of Vision by Shonna and a circle of women. This retreat brought participants together from Vancouver, Eugene, Portland, Seattle, Bellingham, and Victoria. Also around this time Shonna, Judith Hankin, and a community of women began creating hand-made Judaica including tallitot, egalitarian ketubot, and other objects of ritual arts.

In 1979 Aryeh moved to Portland and helped start a progressive havurah called Kol Hashofar. Yitzhak remained in Eugene and over the years became more and more involved with Beth Israel synagogue, first as a part-time teacher, then by the mid-1980s as Hazzan, and finally by the early 1990s as Rabbi. Upon becoming Rabbi, Yitzhak encouraged the shul to re-examine its affiliation resulting in the community becoming Reconstructionist. The congregation continues to thrive with three minyanim covering a choice of davvenen styles, and an ethical kashrut program involving environmental, animal welfare, and social justice components.

In early 1983 Yitzhak and Shonna, and several others, realized their dream of establishing a Jewish spiritual community in a rural setting. Called Shivtei Shalom, it was located on a former church camp in Dorena Lake south of Eugene. It began with three households and grew, at its height, to 27 people which included Rabbi Hanan Sills. The first Pesach over 150 people showed up for the seder and during the next four years the community hosted over forty retreats. When the property was sold in 1987, most members moved back to Eugene retaining an informal connection.

Meanwhile, in Vancouver in the fall of 1979, Daniel and Hanna Siegel started a bi-weekly Shabbat Minyan in their living room. This had grown out of the monthly Friday night services Daniel had organized during the previous year at the University of British Columbia’s Hillel House where he was the director. The services were egalitarian, meditative, and joyful; creative yet rooted in traditional prayer. Hanna’s melodies became an integral part of the service and Torah discussions were expansive and meaningful. Participants sat crowded on the floor and the energetic and spirited davvenen was followed by a vegetarian pot-luck lunch and discussions that lasted well into the mid-afternoon hours. Hanna inspired a whole group of Jewish women to take their rightful place in Jewish life and ritual, and women played a key role in the services. She also organized a monthly women’s Rosh Hodesh group. In addition to creating a more meaningful form of ritual practice, Daniel and Hanna also made environmental and political concerns central to the group.

After two years at the Siegels’ house, the Minyan began to rotate around other members’ homes and later held services in several rented houses. The Minyan held its first Bat Mitzvah and its first wedding in 1981 and its first High Holy Days services in 1982 at the Theological College Chapel at U.B.C. No one will forget two community members on a ladder high above the floor covering the large cross with a tapestry made of sewn-together bedspreads. By the late 1980s Yom Kippur services had grown from one hundred to over five hundred participants and the community attracted members from as far away as Victoria and Bellingham. Myrna Rabinowitz and Harley Rothstein also began composing melodies and together with Hanna formed a group called Shir Hadash which recorded two albums of original music. The entire community became well known for its musicality. Shared leadership and participatory davvenen were essential principles guiding the community, and other members learned to lead services and layn Torah.

In its early days the Minyan was rooted in ideals of participatory democracy, and formal administrative structure was kept to a minimum. Decisions were made by the whole community although Daniel and Hanna exercised strong leadership. Membership was by “declaration” and, typical of alternative organizations of the day, no one wanted to implement a formal fee structure. In 1986 the Minyan adopted Or Shalom as its permanent name and by this time services were held every Shabbat morning.

In the late 1980s two developments changed the nature of Or Shalom. First, in 1987 the Siegels moved to New Hampshire and the community drew on its members to develop its own leadership. Second, large growth in membership transformed the community from a close group of friends to a full service shul and eventually led to the purchase of a modest building by the mid-1990s. Members of the community continued to develop a wide variety of skills. In addition, some outside help was brought in. Rabbi Ayla Grafstein was guest Rabbi for High Holy Days for two years, and Rabbi Vicki Hollander of Seattle provided Rabbinical services one weekend per month for one year. By 1989 the lay leadership was becoming burned out. Itzchak Marmorstein served as Rabbi from 1989 until 1994 and David Mivasair led the community from 1995 until 2002. Rabbi Hillel Goelman, a longtime member, provided Or Shalom with continuing spiritual leadership for over fifteen years and served as Rabbi during 1994/95.

In 1984 Aryeh Hirschfield left Portland for Ashland where he served for a year as part-time Rabbi at the Reform shul. In 1985 he founded Havurat Shir Hadash, the first Renewal congregation in Oregon, where he remained for almost twelve years. While in Ashland Aryeh also formed a connection with Congregation Beth El in Eureka, California, a Reform shul with a distinctly Renewal flavor. Aryeh led Shabbat services there once a month for three years. Then in the early 1990s Aryeh began to renew his connection to Portland. A group of people who had known him from his Eugene and early Portland days began bringing him up to teach in 1991, and in 1993 P’nei Or was formed. The havurah grew quickly and attracted up to 100 people for services. Finally, in 1996, Aryeh left Ashland to become the Rabbi of P’nei Or Portland.

The Ashland community continued to evolve and David Zaslow became Rabbi of Shir Hadash. David, a children’s writer and musician, had originally been a member of the Ashland Reform shul. In 1989 he became inspired by Aryeh to become a Rabbi and studied with him for six years. Under his leadership Shir Hadash has continued to flourish and he guided the community in its continued growth and purchase of a small building in 1999. The congregation then built its own building which was completed last year.

Seattle was the last major center in the Northwest to develop a Renewal community. In 1989, after a year as part-time Rabbi at Or Shalom in Vancouver, Vicki Hollander established a havurah in Seattle which became incorporated as Eitz Or the following year. Ordained as a Reform Rabbi, Vicki was also a counsellor, hospice worker, and poet. In the early days the group met in people’s living rooms, then twice a month in the University Friends’ Center, and in 1992 moved to the University Unitarian Church. Vicki created her own siddur and led most of the service. But there was lots of participation and lengthy discussions around the Torah portion. Under her leadership the community had grown to 100 families by the time Vicki left in 1993. David Wolfe-Blank z”l became Rabbi in 1995 and his innovative leadership took the community in a more creative direction. After Reb David’s untimely death, Eitz Or has continued under lay leadership except for one year during which Larry Gerstenhaber served as Rabbi.

Jewish Renewal has an impressive record of accomplishment in the Pacific Northwest as it has across North America. There are four major renewal communities in Vancouver, Seattle, Portland, and Ashland. As well, a number of mainstream congregations have been influenced by renewal values and practices, most notably the Reconstructionist Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, as well as Conservative congregations such as Emanu-El in Victoria and Beth Israel in Seattle.

All of these communities are characterized by a participatory and joyful approach to prayer, a blending of traditional and creative services, an openness to other spiritual traditions, a re-evaluation of rules and practices, democratic/egalitarian decision making and ritual practice, and involvement in social justice and environmental issues. Music has provided a profound gateway to the Renewal project and several individuals cite music as the “soul of Jewish Renewal.”

Two factors have contributed most notably to the success of Jewish Renewal in the Pacific Northwest. The first was the existence during the 1970s of an informal community of individuals who retained the ideals and values of the activist and countercultural movements of the 1960s. Such individuals found in the Jewish world many of the same conditions they had reacted against in society as a whole including materialism, hierarchical structures, rigid conformity, intolerance, social injustice, and rote religious practice. Many had experimented with spiritual practices from other traditions. Conditions were ripe for the embracing of an open, creative, and spiritually based Judaism. The second factor was the emergence of a courageous and visionary leadership. In places where that leadership was able to connect with a willing community, the Jewish Renewal movement was most successful. Those involved felt like pioneers in something important and were excited to be “riding a wave of consciousness together.”

 

Harley Rothstein

Vancouver, B.C.

July 2003

 

*    With assistance from Daniel Siegel, Hanna Tiferet Siegel, Aryeh Hirschfield, Yitzhak Husbands-Hankin, Shonna Husbands-Hankin, David Zaslow, Araya Sol, and Louis Sutker.

 

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