Quest for Jewish spirituality broadens, deepens

The Jewish High Holy Days are a time of heightened spirituality. Rosh Hashana, the new year, and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, are preceded by Elul, a month of reflection.

Spirituality has moved from a buzzword to a widening movement that is affecting the major branches of Judaism, less-mainstream movements and the scores of unaffiliated Jews.

Featuring meditation, chanting, prayer, yoga and study, the goal is to deepen faith through Jewish practice. Spirituality is being embraced in new ways in the different traditions of Judaism which is traditionally known for its emphasis on law and ritual. While such practices also attract some criticism as being too “New-Agey” for Judaism, the major branches have noted the success of renewal movements in attracting nonaffiliated Jews and are encouraging spirituality in congregational life.


Why it matters

Personal spirituality is part of American culture and is permeating religious traditions of all kinds, making the United States one of the most religious countries on earth.

Questions for reporters

  • Where is Jewish spirituality being encouraged in your community – synagogues, retreat centers, youth gatherings? How do people say an emphasis on spirituality is changing their faith and their approach to everyday life?
  • What are synagogues and Jewish leaders doing to attract nonpracticing Jews into the fold?
  • How are Jewish youth in your community expressing their faith?
  • Are there Jewish Reconstructionist and renewal movements in your community? How are they manifesting themselves?
  • Where are Jewish people turning for resources on spirituality – synagogues, books, Web pages, arts events, conferences, educational classes?
  • Who is leading the push for Jewish spirituality in your community? (Note for reporters: the term rabbi means teacher and is used by Jewish leaders in all traditions. In Reform and Conservative traditions, rabbis are ordained through a central organization. Orthodox rabbis, however, have no one central authority which grants ordination and rabbis may be ordained by an individual. It is worth noting for Jewish readers and listeners which branch of Judaism rabbis represent – Reform, Conservative, Orthodox or Reconstructionist.)


The urgent interest in spirituality has obvious roots: Less than half of U.S. Jews affiliate with a synagogue or marry another Jew. As a result, fewer children are being raised Jewish and the number of Jews is dropping, raising fears that Jews are assimilating themselves out of existence. For thousands of Jews, Judaism has become a cultural rather than a religious connection, and many believe an increased emphasis on personal transformation is necessary to build a more robust future for Judaism in America and beyond.

Jonathan D. Sarna, author of American Judaism: A History, points out that this new interest in spirituality began in the late 20th century, when Jews, led by several charismatic leaders, began complementing Judaism’s emphasis on rational teaching with practices that fed the heart and soul: devotion, emotive religious experiences, mystical teachings (such as Kabbalah), meditation, healing, music and dance. These were encouraged by leaders including Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (known as the Dancing Rabbi and the Hippie Rabbi) and Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, known as the “granddaddy of the Jewish Spiritual Renewal movement.”

Today, this blossoming Jewish spirituality is being expressed in widely varying ways:

  • Jews both inside and outside of Jewish institutions are borrowing practices from other religions – most notably Hinduism (yoga), Buddhism (meditation), and Islam (Sufism), leading to more cross-training in different religious traditions.
  • Jewish spirituality is considered a “postdenominational” movement because it transcends the major branches of Judaism and is bringing together religious leaders and followers from the different movements. Programs in Jewish spiritual direction are attracting rabbis from all traditions.
  • Jewish renewal movements, such as Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. and Synagogue 3000 are working to make Judaism and its congregations central in communities.
  • Jewish movements are reaching out to nonaffiliated Jews, particularly the Chabad-Lubavitch movement.
  • The major branches of Judaism are exploring spiritual practices. Orthodox Judaism draws on a strong legacy of mysticism and spirituality. Many Conservative Jewish leaders are embracing spiritual practices for their congregations. And Reform Judaism is increasingly adopting the rituals of traditional Judaism that it once eschewed.
  • Reconstructionist Jews, who are a tiny minority of the U.S. Jewish population, are leading a push for spirituality by integrating Jewish culture and religion in a search for relevance in contemporary life.
  • Jewish spiritual retreats are proliferating.
  • Young people – and the desire to engage them in their faith – provide much of the energy behind the spirituality movement. They are open to innovation, interested in deep spiritual experiences and increasingly disaffected from congregational life.



According to the 2010 Jewish Population survey:

  • 45 percent American Jews had married outside their faith and 60 percent of their children were being raised Jewish.
  • 33 percent of American Jews belong to a synagogue and 57 percent of Jewish respondents attended a Jewish cultural event in the last two years.
  • Among fulltime households 83 percent of Jews take part in Passover seders, 83 percent light Hanukkah candles and 17 percent have a Christmas tree.

Other background

  • Ohalah

    Ohalah, the Association of Rabbis for Jewish Renewal, is associated with Aleph and is designed to link Renewal rabbis and cantors with members of the Jewish community. On its website are lists of people, synagogues and organizations committed to Jewish renewal. It is based in Las Vegas.

  • JewishLink

    The website JewishLink provides information on Jewish spirituality and seeks to study the lost practice of Jewish healing in order to bring it to the modern world.



    The Webring offers links to Jewish youth organizations’ websites that inform on activities and information for Jewish children and families, and resources for educators.

  • Judaism 101

    Judaism 101 is a general clearinghouse of information about Judaism run by Tracey Rich, a Jewish layperson. It contains descriptions of the Jewish calendar, the Hebrew alphabet, holidays, life-cycle events, rituals, observances and much more.

  • is a Jewish outreach program from Project Genesis. The organization reaches out internationally to educate on Jewish beliefs through resources and courses provided online. Email through the website.

    Contact: 410-602-1350.
  • Judaism and Jewish Resources

    Judaism and Jewish Resources is Andrew Tannenbaum’s site for The site compiles many Jewish resource organizations on one webpage.

  • National Study of Youth and Religion

    See summaries of research findings from the National Study of Youth and Religion, funded by the Lilly Endowment and based at the University of North Carolina. From July 2002 to March 2003, the researchers conducted a random nationwide telephone survey of 3,370 teenagers ages 13 to 17 and their parents, and followed that up with 267 in-depth interviews with teenagers in 45 states. Among the findings: Teenagers seemed remarkably conventional in their religious views, and there wasn’t much evidence of “spiritual seeking” or exploration. But even teenagers who considered religion important were not very articulate in talking about their faith – they have a hard time explaining what they believe.

    They offer a listing of Jewish youth organizations.

National sources

  • Jews for Judaism

    Jews for Judaism is an international organization that aims to help Jews strengthen their heritage and counter attempts to convert Jews to other religions. It has branches in several cities, including Baltimore and Los Angeles.

  • Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life

    Hillel: The Foundation for Jewish Campus Life engages young Jewish students in Jewish life, culture and religion during their college careers. It maintains a state-by-state directory of regional and local Hillel centers. Eric Fingerhut is president.

  • Goldie Milgram

    Rabbi Goldie Milgram, founder and executive director of Reclaiming Judaism, has spoken at a Thanksgiving Spiritual Health Retreat at Rancho La Puerta in Tecate, Mexico.

  • Eric Yoffie

    Rabbi Eric Yoffie is the president emeritus of the Union for Reform Judaism.

  • Jonathan D. Sarna

    Jonathan D. Sarna is professor of American Jewish history at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is co-author of Religion and State in the American Jewish Experience and author of American Judaism: A History, which won the Jewish Book Council’s Jewish Book of the Year Award in 2004.

  • Lawrence Kushner

    Rabbi Lawrence Kushner is a writer, speaker and teacher at Congregation Emanu-El in San Francisco. He is also a visiting professor of Jewish spirituality at the Graduate Theological Union. He wrote the book Jewish Spirituality: A Brief Introduction for Christians (Jewish Lights Publishing, 2001).

  • Alan M. Dershowitz

    Alan M. Dershowitz is Felix Frankfurter Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. He is considered “…the Jewish state’s lead attorney in the court of public opinion.” He wrote The Vanishing American Jew: In Search of Jewish Identity for the Next Century (Simon and Schuster, 1998). In the book, Dershowitz writes that “All Jews should ‘return’ to religious adherence, and religion should once again become the central unifying essence of Jewish life.”

  • Jeffrey K. Salkin

    Jeffrey K. Salkin is rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta. He is also co-chairman of the Commission on Reform Jewish Outreach. He wrote the book Being God’s Partner: How To Find the Hidden Link Between Spirituality and Your Work (Jewish Lights Publishing, 1997).

  • Irwin Kula

    Rabbi Irwin Kula is president of CLAL, the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership, a think tank dedicated to training Jewish leaders. He wrote Yearnings: Embracing the Sacred Messiness of Life (Hyperion, September 2006), among others, and is a highly regarded commentator on the modern approach to understanding and practicing Judaism.

  • Howard Avruhm Addison

    Rabbi Howard Avruhm Addison is the co-author of Jewish Spiritual Direction: An Innovative Guide from Traditional & Contemporary Sources (Jewish Lights, 2006) and co-founder of Lev Shomea, the first institute to train spiritual directors in the Jewish tradition. A congregational rabbi for 30 years, he is a professor at Temple University in Philadelphia and the G. G. Scholem Professor of Jewish Spirituality at the Graduate Theological Foundation.

  • Rachel Cowan

    Reform Rabbi Rachel Cowan is executive director of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality, which uses Torah study, prayer, mindfulness meditation, yoga, and spiritual direction and retreats to nurture deeper spirituality among rabbis, cantors and lay people. Rabbi Cowan is author to a number of books and publications, including Growing Up Yanqui (Viking Juvenile, 1975) and Mixed Blessings (Penguin Books, 1988)

  • Elat Chayyim Retreat Center

    The Elat Chayyim Retreat Center is a place for spiritual contemplation for Jews. During the Labor Day weekend of 2006, the retreat moved from its longtime home in Accord, N.Y., to Falls Village, Conn.

    Contact: 800-398-2630.
  • Dov Peretz Elkins

    Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins is rabbi emeritus of the Jewish Center of Princeton, N.J. He is also a lecturer, educator and author of Jewish and general press.

  • Zalman Shmotkin

    Rabbi Zalman Shmotkin is director of and a spokesman for Chabad-Lubavitch, a branch of Hasidic Judaism that tries to reach out to American Jews who it believes have not been exposed to “authentic” Judaism.

    He says that although there are great problems with apathy and assimilation among American Jews, there is also a renaissance and spiritualization going on.

  • Debra Kolodny

    Debra Kolodny is executive director of Nehirim, an organization that aims to provide programming that empowers the LGBT Jewish community. She is also a volunteer and professional activist in the faith, labor, social justice, women’s, and LGBT communities.

    She says the issues confronting Jews today provide opportunities for growth and spiritual revitalization.

  • Stacy Abramson

    Stacy Abramson is executive director of Reboot, which seeks to “reboot” Jewish traditions, particularly for young people, through innovation, including salons across the country, journals, books and films. It’s based in New York City.

    I think one of the things that keep young American Jews from identifying with Judaism is the reality of the politics in Israel.

Regional sources

In the Northeast

  • Barry Kosmin

    Barry Kosmin directs the Institute for the Study of Secularism in Society and Culture at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He has conducted polls on religion and society in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia.

  • Amy L. Sales

    Amy L. Sales is associate director of the Cohen Center for Modern Jewish Studies at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. She has studied Jewish life on college campuses and the experience of teenagers at Jewish summer camps. She is co-author of How Goodly Are Thy Tents: Summer Camps as Jewish Socializing Experiences (University Press of New England, 2003), for which she visited 20 summer camps in 2000.

  • Ellen M. Umansky

    Ellen M. Umansky is a professor of religious studies at Fairfield University in Connecticut, where she teaches many courses, including one on women in Judaism. She focuses on Jewish history in the U.S. and England, leadership and women’s spirituality. She wrote the book From Christian Science to Jewish Science: Spiritual Healing and American Jews.

  • Tamara Miller

    Rabbi Tamara Miller leads Capital Kehillah, a center that encourages personal growth through the teachings of Judaism, in Washington, D.C. The daughter of an Orthodox rabbi, she has served in Reform, Conservative and Reconstructionist congregations. She is director of pastoral care at George Washington University Hospital.

  • Leila Gal Berner

    Rabbi Leila Gal Berner is a Reconstructionist rabbi who founded Lev Tahor: A Center for Jewish Soulwork in Kensington, Md. The center offers programs to encourage personal spirituality through Jewish practice. Rabbi Leila is the founding director of the Center for Jewish Ethics at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College and professor of philosophy and Religion Department at American University in Washington, D.C.

  • Lewis D. Solomon

    Lewis D. Solomon is a professor of business law at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. He is an expert on Jewish spirituality and wrote the book Jewish Spirituality: Revitalizing Judaism for the Twenty-First Century (Rowman and Littlefield, 2000).

  • Chaim I. Waxman

    Chaim I. Waxman is a professor emeritus of sociology and Jewish studies at Rutgers University in New Jersey. He is an expert on Reconstructionist Judaism. He lives in Jerusalem where he continues to teach and write.

  • Robert M. Seltzer

    Robert M. Seltzer is a professor of history at Hunter College, City University of New York. He has written books on the Jewish experience in America, including Toward the 21st Century: Is There a Modern Judaism? (Hunter College of the City University of New York, 1997).

  • Elaine Zecher

    Rabbi Elaine Zecher is a rabbi at Temple Israel in Boston, where she has developed spiritual programs including a service for the healing of the soul, Women’s Kallah and Learner’s Minyan. She also works with Synagogue 3000 and is a partner in the Kalsman Institute, which focuses on healing and health. Contact through her assistant, Laurena Rosenberg.

  • Daniel Judson

    Rabbi Daniel Judson leads Temple Beth David of the South Shore in Canton, Mass., which has a spirituality program that “explores prayer and ritual through a prism of meditation, movement, creative writing and other forms of personal expression that bring the wonder, joy and richness of Judaism into our lives.” He is co-editor of The Rituals and Practices of a Jewish Life: A Handbook for Personal Spiritual Renewal (Jewish Lights Publications, 2002).

    Contact: 781-828-2275.
  • Arthur Green

    Art Green is professor emeritus of religion at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass. He is an expert in Jewish mysticism and the Kabbalah.

  • David Shneyer

    Rabbi David Shneyer heads Am Kolel (“an inclusive people”), a Jewish renewal center in Beallsville, Md., and founded Yachad, the Jewish Housing Development Corporation. He is also active in the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, the Montgomery Countryside Alliance and also Rabbis for Human Rights.

  • Jacob J. Staub

    Jacob J. Staub is director of the Jewish Spiritual Direction Program at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in Wyncote, Pa. He has taught Jewish spiritualism across the country. Rabbi Staub can discuss queer Jewish theology.

In the South

  • Vanessa Ochs

    Vanessa Ochs is the author of The Book of Jewish Sacred Practices: CLAL’s Guide to Everyday and Holiday Rituals and Blessings. She is a professor in the department of religious studies at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville. She can talk about the role of the Internet in the contemporary Jewish dating scene, life cycle rituals for single people and the creation of rituals that acknowledge the place of single people in the community.

  • David Blumenthal

    David Blumenthal is a professor of Judaic studies at the Tam Institute of Jewish Studies at Emory University in Atlanta. He is the author of two seminal books on Jewish mysticism, God at the Center: Meditations on Jewish Spirituality and Understanding Jewish Mysticism. Additionally, he is the author of The Banality of Good and Evil: Moral Lessons from the Shoah and Jewish Tradition. He notes that both perpetrators and rescuers often say they were just doing what was expected of them.

  • Stephen Jacobs

    Stephen Jacobs is professor of religious studies and chairman of Judaic studies at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa. He can comment on altruism as a scholar of modern Jewish thought and from a post-Holocaust perspective.

  • Heena Reiter

    Heena Reiter is director of the Gesher Center for Jewish Spirituality, Meditation and Healing in Charlottesville, Va. The center works to promote “personal and spiritual growth based on teachings and practices from traditional and contemporary Judaism.”

  • Marc Ellis

    Marc Ellis is retired Professor of Jewish Studies, Professor of History and Director of the Center for Jewish Studies at at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. He has written about a Jewish theology of liberation and about the future of liberation theology. He wrote Practicing Exile: The Religious Odyssey of an American Jew.

  • Gregory Kaplan

    Gregory Kaplan is the Anna Smith Fine assistant professor of Judaic studies at Rice University in Houston and faculty advisor for the University of Tennessee Hillel Jewish Student Center. He is an expert on modern Judaism.

  • Richard Golden

    Richard Golden is director of the Jewish Studies Program at the University of North Texas in Denton.

  • David Nelson

    David Nelson is director of the Jewish Studies Program at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth. He is author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World (Jewish Lights Pub, 2005).

  • Adam Zachary Newton

    Adam Zachary Newton is interim director of Jewish studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is an expert on modern Jewish thought. He has published a number of books in the areas of Narrative Theory, American Studies, Contemporary Jewish Philosophy, and Comparative Literature. His focus is on modern Jewish thought and literature.

  • Lee Shai Weissbach

    Lee Shai Weissbach is a history professor at the University of Louisville in Kentucky. He is an expert on small-town Jewish life in America, especially in the South, where surveys show traditional observance tends to be lower than in other areas.

    He says educating American Jews about Jewish heritage is a major issue.

  • Jay Geller

    Jay Geller is an associate professor of modern Jewish culture and religious studies at the divinity school at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn. He has written on atheism and modern Judaism. He is also an expert on Judiams and modernity and the Holocaust on film and in literature.

    He says American Jewish identity rests too heavily on the Holocaust and Israel and that the next generation must expand that base of identity.

In the Midwest

In the West

  • Sharon Brous

    Rabbi Sharon Brous is the founder of IKAR, a Los Angeles-based progressive Jewish community focused sharply on social justice.

  • Paul Burstein

    Paul Burstein is chairman of the Jewish studies program at the University of Washington in Seattle. He is an expert on the American Jewish community.

  • Shefa Gold

    Rabbi Shefa Gold is director of the Center for Devotional Energy and Ecstatic Prayer in Jemez Springs, N.M. She teaches workshops and retreats on chanting, devotional healing, spiritual community building and meditation. Shefa combines her grounding in Judaism with a background in Buddhist, Christian, Islamic, and Native American spiritual traditions and says she returned to Judaism because of the Jewish renewal movement.

  • Linda Thal

    Linda Thal is co-director of the Yedidya Center for Jewish Spiritual Direction in California and co-director of Morei Derekh, a two-year, retreat-based distance program. She serves as a consultant to the Central Conference of American Rabbis’ Committee on Rabbinic Spirituality and did her doctoral dissertation on spiritual direction.

  • Arnold M. Eisen

    Arnold M. Eisen is a religion professor at Stanford University in California. He co-wrote the book The Jew Within: Self, Family and Community in America (Indiana University Press, 2000). The book looks at the results of surveys Eisen and his co-author conducted with American Jews. The book states that American Jews are less attached to Israel and that their primary expression of religious identification is observing Jewish holidays. The authors conclude that Jewish religious leaders need to respond to the changing needs and concerns of the Jewish community.

  • John Efron

    John Efron is a professor of history and Jewish studies at the University of California-Berkeley. His focus is on the cultural and intellectual history of modern Judaism. He wrote Medicine and the German Jews: A History (Yale University Press, Spring 2001) and The Jews: A History, with Matthias Lehmann and Steven Weitzman (Prentice Hall, 2009), among others.

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