עֲטֶרֶת זְקֵנִים, בְּנֵי בָנִים
Children’s children are the crown of the old (Proverbs 17:6)
Reb Zalman, z”l, of blessed memory was not my Rebbe, though I did meet him several times. He was the Rebbe of my parents when they very young, in the mid-1960s in Winnipeg, Manitoba. At that time Reb Zalman was a professor of Near Eastern and Judaic Studies department of the University of Manitoba, where my parents were students (in other departments). This was in the time period after he was a dynamic youth emissary of the Lubavitcher rebbe, and after he founded Bnai Or (the beginning of Renewal) and just before he founded Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA. The Judaism my parents knew at that time consisted of what we would now call big shul Conservadox, and also the rich secular, often communist (or at least socialist) Jewish culture of the Bundists and the Yiddishists and a taste of more modern Judaism through the Brandeis Camp Institute. What they were finding in their secular lives as university students in the 1960s was Ruach- in the sense of spirituality and in the sort of Camp Ramah sense of spirit and joyous community.
What Zalman did for them, and indeed for all of us, is create a Judaism that had Ruach, in both the spirituality sense and the joyous community sense.
So, my experiences I want to share of Reb Zalman, are not what it was like to hear him teach or lead prayers, as others have so eloquently done (Reb Zalman Married Counter Culture to Hasidic Judaism …, Rest in Peace Reb Zalman: My Rebbe Died Today), but two different things. First, wherever I travelled in my Jewish life, geographically, spiritually, over many years, when I landed in a community that I admired or felt at home in, within a few minutes I would find out that it had either been found by Reb Zalman, or by one of his disciples, or the current leaders were inspired by him. Like the Johnny Appleseed of Jewish spirituality and renewal, his reach was everywhere.
The second is that since it was my parents who were inspired by Reb Zalman, I had the privilege of growing up in a Judaism where ideas and practices he started were woven into the fabric (see blog title) of my Jewish life, and did not seem new, or odd, but normative and authentic. For this I am very grateful, as it has allowed me to explore without the fear of change and with the confidence of a native. He literally invented the Rainbow tallit (see Jewish Chronicle version or Yonassan Gershom’s version) that I was metaphorically wrapped in.
And both of these are a true legacy of what he gave to Judaism, and a true crown to his achievements.