History of the ALEPH Ordination Program

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, or Reb Zalman as he preferred to be known, was one of the most influential Jewish spiritual leaders of his generation. Countless innovations in Jewish life and worship sprang from his creative mind and from his ceaseless work as a visionary pioneer in contemporary Jewish life.

His ideas and work influenced the birth of the Havurah movement, the international Jewish Renewal movement, numerous Jewish retreat centers and innovative social-change programs, the interfaith eldering wisdom movement, as well as the ordination programs for rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors that began as B’nai Or Religious Fellowship, later became P’nai Or Religious Fellowship, and eventually coalesced to form the current ALEPH Ordination Program/AOP.

AOP dates its origins back to the mid-1970s and progressively evolved over the course of four decades to where it is today.

The Early Beginnings

In 1968, Reb Zalman was influential in the founding of Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA, a collective egalitarian spiritual community. In the early 1970’s Reb Zalman was living in Winnipeg, serving as Hillel Director and teaching in the Department of Religion at the University of Manitoba. Around this time, Daniel Siegel – who had met Reb Zalman at Camp Ramah as a teenager in 1962 or 1963, and again at Havurat Shalom – wrote to Reb Zalman, and soon thereafter travelled from British Columbia to Winnipeg to discuss his spiritual concerns with the Rebbe. In his characteristic prescient style, Reb Zalman helped Daniel find work serving Shaaray Shomayim Congregation in Thunder Bay, Ontario, a small town on the north end of Lake Superior, and encouraged him to begin studying towards rabbinical ordination.

Previous to this time, long before the term “Jewish Renewal” was used and before a movement of that name emerged, Reb Zalman had no formal academic curriculum of study for rabbinic training. For Daniel – as Reb Zalman’s first smicha student (and similarly for all of the early Renewal rabbis) – his rabbinic training grew organically out of his one-to-one mentorship with the Rebbe. Reb Zalman created an individualized curriculum for Daniel, necessitating 900-mile return trips from Thunder Bay to Winnipeg every four to six weeks for study and davennen’ together. Daniel’s training grew into a rigorous blend of experiential and practical learning, academic study, and one-to-one mentorship, including listening to hours and hours of taped recordings of Reb Zalman’s teaching, completing assignments, and – before low-cost long distance calls, email and internet – extensive written correspondence with Reb Zalman.

Upon fulfilling the requirements that Reb Zalman had set out for him, Daniel Siegel was ordained on February 18, 1974, as the first Jewish Renewal rabbi. Reb Daniel has been a trail blazer in Jewish Renewal, and to this day continues his commitment to bringing Reb Zalman’s legacy into the world.

Seminary Without Walls

In 1976 Reb Zalman relocated from Winnipeg to Philadelphia. He began teaching in the Department of Religion at Temple University while simultaneously worked on expanding the administrative foundation of B’nai Or Religious Fellowship, the forerunner to ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. B’nai Or, later renamed P’nai Or, to affirm a more egalitarian intention, provided an institutional vehicle for Reb Zalman’s work, and a national organization for the growing number of seekers and communities, rabbis and students who were attracted to Reb Zalman’s teachings.

In the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, a number of rabbis who had been affiliated with Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA, discussed the creation of a seminary for the training of rabbis, but the project did not manifest. In 1978, Rabbis Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Arthur Green, Everett Gendler, Edward Feld, Lawrence Kushner, Max Ticktin, z”l, and Professor Grossman created the “Seminary Without Walls” as a formal program for the training and ordination of rabbis. Richard Siegel, Pam Frydman, David Shneyer, Pip Mandelkorn, Arthur Waskow, and Debbie Friedman, z”l, and others studied with assigned mentors and teachers and met for intensive-study seminars in places such as Fellowship House Farm, in Pottstown, PA and Moshav Me’or Modi’in in Israel. The “Seminary Without Walls” experiment was short-lived, but the intention was not lost. The vision of an independent rabbinic seminary with personalized mentorship and group residential intensives was an early template for what later evolved into AOP.

Reb Zalman’s Smicha Project 

From 1980 onward, under the institutional auspices of B’nai Or and then P’nai Or Religious Fellowship, Reb Zalman began working directly with individual smicha students, serving as rebbe-teacher, mentor and spiritual director/mashpiah ruhani. Each student designed an individualized program of study working directly with Reb Zalman and at least two other rabbis. The curriculum included guided tutorials, independent study, and university or yeshiva-based coursework, as well as liturgical, pastoral, and community-building related learning and varied forms of practical rabbinic internship. Residential components stressed davennen’ leadership and hands-on rabbinic work. Students participated in B’nai Or/P’nai Or retreats held at Fellowship House Farm, and after 1985 also participated in “The Kallah,” a weeklong learning event held every two years. These retreats became centerpieces of community among students, and often highlighted cutting-edge opportunities for dynamic and creative learning with Reb Zalman and other teachers.

The first generation of talmidim recall how, long before email, cell phones and video-conferencing, Reb Zalman was endlessly available for early morning or late-night telephone conversations, and regularly extended invitations for students to meet with him in their locale or other venues where he traveled to teach. It was not uncommon that these meetings would take place while students accompanied Reb Zalman as he commuted to Temple University in Philadelphia, or on his travels around North America and sometimes in Europe and Israel. Reb Zalman evaluated each student’s progress, gave new assignments and guided his students toward ordination. And – as many of the early Renewal rabbis would attest – there were often numerous synchronicities and magical coincidences along the journey.

During the 1980’s approximately two dozen rabbinical students were ordained by B’nai Or/P’nai Or. Two-thirds were men and one-third were women.  Following Daniel Siegel, in the Spring of 1981, Lynn Gottlieb became the second Renewal rabbi and the first woman ordained by Reb Zalman. Although other American seminaries had ordained women rabbis prior to 1981 (Hebrew Union College – Sally Priesand, 1972; Reconstructionist Rabbinical College – Sandy Sasso, 1974; and Jewish Theological Seminary – Amy Eilberg, 1984), Rabbi Lynn Gottleib was a unique, mold-breaking pioneer and artistic visionary. Her style of teaching on Shekhinah, the Divine Feminine, expressed through animated story-telling, sign language, innovative chanting, and dynamic ritual, embodied a radically new model for women’s empowerment that influenced and inspired the style of many Renewal rabbis, and offered women and men a new vision for a Shekhinah-inspired Rabbinate.

During this early period of the B’nai Or/P’nai Or rabbinic training program, Reb Zalman also acknowledged the need to train Jewish leaders to serve a variety of different functions. He recognized that in Eastern Europe a rabbi would often designate specific individuals to take on certain rabbinic roles, particular with regard to pastoral care. Since not all rabbis are identical in personal calling and capacities, and the roles needed in the Jewish community are not homogenous, Reb Zalman envisioned other types of ordinations to empower students to serve the Jewish world in unique ways. Lev Friedman, Andy Gold, Simcha Paull Raphael and Leon Olenick were among the earliest students ordained as Rabbinic Pastors, setting the paradigm for the ALEPH Rabbinic Pastor Program, which highlights a model of ordination focusing on pastoral care within and beyond the Jewish community, such as in hospital, hospice and clinical settings.

Zalman's Simcha Project

From Reb Zalman’s Smicha Project to the ALEPH Ordination Program 

By 1990, numerous prospective rabbinical students appeared on Reb Zalman’s doorstep – sometimes literally! In July 1990, Reb Zalman appointed Rabbi Marcia Prager as the Dean of Students of the B’nai Or/P’nai Or Rabbinical Ordination Program. Reb Marcia, a graduate of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College who had also earned a personal smicha from Reb Zalman, began working for B’nai Or/P’nai Or as an advisor and collaborator in running what was initially being called “Reb Zalman’s Smicha Project.”

With Reb Marcia in the role of Dean of Students, there began a gradual decentralization of Reb Zalman’s role. Advanced students continued working one-on-one with Reb Zalman, while Reb Marcia assumed an active role designing curriculum, cultivating a cadre of teachers who could work with a growing number of rabbinical students, and locating other academic programs that could offer essential instruction. Reb Marcia was instrumental in reaching out to many of the earlier ordained rabbis to mentor the newer students. She also established the first formal distance-learning format rabbinic courses, including engaging prize-winning Talmud teacher, Rabbi Judith Abrams Ph.D., z”l, to teach the core Talmud curriculum.

In 1993, the national P’nai Or Religious Fellowship merged with The Shalom Center, the organization founded by Rabbi Arthur Waskow, to form ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. While the emerging rabbinic seminary retained its unique organizational identity and administrative independence, Reb Zalman’s Smicha Project now joined several other Jewish Renewal inspired programs in a consortium under the ALEPH umbrella, to form the new ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

In 1995 Reb Zalman left Philadelphia to relocate to Boulder, CO, where he assumed the position as World Wisdom Chair at Naropa Institute (now called Naropa University), which he held until 2002, and remained on Naropa’s Religious Studies faculty until his retirement in 2004.

With his departure from Philadelphia, Reb Zalman pulled back further from active engagement in the training of rabbinical students. Reb Marcia’s role increased significantly, and in her own words, “the administration of this program became complicated and overwhelming.” With Jewish Renewal growing stronger, and with more students seeking Renewal training and ordination, it was time for a new administrative and academic model.

zalmans smicha project

To formally engage an expanded circle of rabbis and teachers in the process of ordaining Renewal rabbis, in 1996 Reb Zalman convened what he called his “Rabbinic Cabinet”. This was a core group of musmachim (ordainees) he hoped would help him and Reb Marcia envision and manifest the next steps of the rabbinic ordination program. Convened twice, at two separate retreats, the Rabbinic Cabinet eventually became the seed for the birth of OHALAH: the Association of Rabbis and Cantors for Jewish Renewal, a professional association that has continued to meet annually since that time, with a membership of over two hundred rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors.

The two Rabbinic Cabinet retreats helped establish the groundwork for the formation of OHALAH and also contributed to further the evolving curriculum of the ALEPH Rabbinic Program. Reb Marcia began to work closely with Rabbis Burt Jacobson, Daniel Siegel and Shaya Isenberg, and then further with Rabbis Sami Barth and Shohama Wiener to refine the Rabbinic Program, articulate its vision, redesign curriculum and develop a new administrative structure.

During this period, Reb Zalman continued his commitment to mentor advanced rabbinical students and teach intensive residential summer courses at Elat Chayyim, the Jewish Renewal Retreat Center founded by Rabbis Jeff Roth and Joanna Katz in upstate New York. This intensive study retreat format became the model for what has continued as the AOP summer Intensive Study Week, often called “Smicha Week.”

Establishing the ALEPH Ordination Program

By 2000, the Rabbinic Program had continued to strengthen, and enrollment grew with Reb Marcia now functioning as both Director and Dean. With a need to further develop the organizational structure to meet the academic and administrative demands, Reb Marcia brought together a group of Reb Zalman’s musmachim with strong rabbinic and academic credentials. At a meeting in New York City, in Spring of 2002, this group met to form the working council of core faculty and Directors of Studies that came to be known as the ALEPH Ordination Program VAAD. Included in this first gathering were Rabbis Marcia Prager, Daniel Siegel, Shaya Isenberg, Sami Barth, Shohama Wiener, Miles Krassen, Moshe Waldoks, Elliot Ginsburg, Victor Gross, and Steven Silvern. While the composition of the VAAD has changed over the years, the dedication and imprint of the founding VAAD remains on the academic, spiritual and structural foundation of AOP.

AOP’s Cantorial Program took root in 2000 when Reb Zalman began to explore with Hazzan Jack Kessler – a Jewish Theological Seminary trained hazzan/cantor with extensive experience in congregational leadership and a Master’s in Voice from Boston Conservatory – the creation of a path for ordaining hazzanim. By 2001, Reb Zalman had ordained three hazzanim: Cantors Lev Friedman, Robert Esformes and Richard Kaplan. Reb Zalman then turned over the effort to Hazzan Jack, who created a comprehensive training program that embraces traditional hazzanut and contemporary Jewish musical and liturgical creativity. In 2002 the Cantorial Program and the Rabbinic Program came under the new umbrella of the ALEPH Ordination Program. As of this writing, eighteen hazzanim have been trained and ordained though the ALEPH Cantorial Program since the original three.

Zalman's Simcha Project
During the late 1990’s, upon Reb Zalman’s urging, Reb Marcia and Reb Daniel began the work to implement Reb Zalman’s vision of training other forms of Jewish spiritual leadership, designing a new program of studies and practica that would culminate in an ordination as Rabbinic Pastor. In 2001 Shulamit Kate Fagan, an accomplished hospital chaplain, was the first graduate of this newly-designed program. Subsequently she was invited by Reb Marcia to remain on board to further the development of this new program. Rabbinic Pastor Shulamit Fagan became the Director of the ALEPH Rabbinic Pastor Program, which joined the Rabbinic and Cantorial Programs under the umbrella of AOP. As of January 2017 the Rabbinic Pastor Program has ordained 22 Rabbinic Pastors.

In 2002, the ALEPH Ordination Program launched the ALEPH Hashpa’ah Program, under the leadership of Rabbi Shohama Wiener. The program was initially intended to offer three years of advanced training in Jewish Spiritual Direction to ALEPH rabbinic, cantorial and rabbinic pastor students. Over time, the ALEPH Hashpa’ah Program expanded its mission by inviting qualified non-clergy students to also enroll in the program and creating dual clergy and non-clergy tracks. Clergy students earn a second supplemental smicha as mashpi’im, while non-clergy students earn a Certificate of Empowerment in Jewish Spiritual Direction. Rabbis Nadya Gross and Shawn Israel Zevit serve as Director and Associate Director of the ALEPH Hashpa’ah Program.

Since 2002 AOP has continued to develop its comprehensive curriculum of study and practice, embracing both traditional and innovative/experiential learning modalities. AOP now offers an array of live video-conference courses that fulfill most of AOP’s curriculum requirements, allowing students all over the world to study in the four programs. Each student fulfills the curriculum requirements with ongoing supervision and guidance of a member of the VAAD who serves as academic advisor and Director of Studies. Students also gather for the residential components: summer intensive retreats, as well as the winter OHALAH shabbaton and conference, offer students the opportunity to regularly gather as a learning community.

The AOP’s ordination/smicha ceremony is held annually at the OHALAH Conference. At the present time there are over two hundred rabbis, cantors and rabbinic pastors who have received ordination from Reb Zalman/B’nai Or/P’nai Or/ALEPH, and there are approximately eighty students in the current ALEPH Ordination Program.

zalmans smicha project

Researched and written by Rabbinic Pastor Simcha Raphael, Ph.D., with contributions from Rabbi Marcia Prager, Rabbi Pam Frydman and Rabbi Dayan Daniel Siegel. Spring 2017