A service at ALEPH Kallah. Photo by Ann Silver

Jewish Renewal movement finds its leadership core in Southeast Michigan with the Alliance for Jewish Renewal (ALEPH).

Featured photo by Ann Silver

Jewish Renewal is probably the smallest and least-well-known branch of Judaism, but Southeast Michigan has become an important center for the movement.

SooJi Min-Maranda of Ann Arbor is executive director of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, the movement’s governing body. Rabbi Aura Ahuvia of Congregation Shir Tikvah in Troy chairs the board. Linda Jo Doctor of Ann Arbor, a program officer for the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, is vice chair. Her husband, Rabbi Elliot Ginsburg, is the spiritual leader of Pardes Hannah, a Jewish Renewal congregation in Ann Arbor. Hazzan Steve Klaper of Song & Spirit Institute for Peace in Royal Oak was ordained through the ALEPH Ordination Program.

Reading from the Torah at Davenen Leadership Institute No.2. Rabbi Marcia Prager
Davenen Leadership Training Institute No. 1 By Rabbi Marcia Prager

Those involved with Jewish Renewal might dispute calling it a “branch” of Judaism. ALEPH’s website defines it as a trans-denominational approach to revitalizing Judaism by combining “the egalitarianism of progressive Judaism, the joy of Chasidism, the informed do-it-yourself spirit of the chavurah movement and the accumulated wisdom of centuries of tradition.”

“Reb Aura,” as Ahuvia likes to be known, worked as a journalist before being ordained through Jewish Renewal in 2014. She became the spiritual leader of Shir Tikvah, which affiliates with both Reform and Jewish Renewal, in 2016.

What she most likes about Renewal is its use of creativity to get people excited about Judaism.

Jewish Renewal traces its roots to the Chasidic movement of the late 18th century, which turned away from the dry pedanticism of the yeshivahs and advocated expressing religious devotion through song and dance. Like the original Chasidism, Renewal uses song, movement and meditation to enhance understanding of Jewish prayer.

Rabbi Aura Ahuvia

“I see it as empowering our whole selves for Jewish expression, not just from our neck up,” said Ahuvia, 52, who lives in Huntington Woods.

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, who died in 2014, is often considered the founder of the Jewish Renewal movement as well as the chavurah movement of small, lay-led prayer communities. The Jewish Catalogue, a foundational text for Baby Boomer Jews interested in more participatory Jewish practice, was created by chavurah activists in 1973.

In 1978, “Reb Zalman,” as Schachter-Shalomi is known, founded B’nai Or (“Sons of Light” in Hebrew) in Philadelphia as both a local Jewish Renewal congregation and a national organization. The name later changed to the more gender-neutral P’nai Or (“Faces of Light”). The national organization merged with Rabbi Arthur Waskow’s Shalom Center in 1993 to form ALEPH, integrating the two principles of tikkun halev (“repair of the heart”) and the better-known tikkun olam (“repair of the world”).

Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi

Niggunim, wordless songs used to enhance devotion, are a hallmark of Jewish Renewal as they were of the original Chasidism, Ahuvia said.

A nigun is not a mindless way of singing, she said. “It allows people to participate in prayer without necessarily knowing all the words.” In fact, she said, the musical structure of many niggunim, A-B-C-B, mirrors the written structure of the unpronounceable name of God, Y-H-V-H in Hebrew. “The niggunim are meditations on the Divine name.”

Song & Spirit Institute for Peace, jointly founded by Hazzan Steve Klaper, his Catholic wife Mary Gilhuly and Brother Al Mascia, a Franciscan friar, reflects the philosophy and intent of Jewish Renewal as well as its core practices, without being formally affiliated with the movement.

a close-up look at a Torah at the Song & Spirit Institute for Peace Mary Gilhuly

Jewish Renewal leaders are aware of Song & Spirit and “understand us to be partners with them in spreading this new outreach of Jewish authenticity in the 21st century,” said Klaper, 65, of Oak Park.

SooJi Min-Maranda, 49, was not born Jewish. A native of Korea, she came to the United States at age 3 and was raised without religion in Evanston, Ill.

After graduating from Barnard College, she learned about Judaism from listening to scholars like Rodger Kamenetz, author of The Jew in the Lotus, Susanna Heschel and Rabbi Joseph Telushkin. She converted to Judaism when she was in her early 30s — but she doesn’t like the word “conversion.” “I like to think my soul was always Jewish and it was finally being revealed,” she said.

A nonprofit manager by profession, Min-Maranda attended a leadership program through Bend the Arc, a Jewish partnership for justice, and realized she could combine her professional and spiritual lives. She landed a job as executive director of Temple Beth Emeth in Ann Arbor, where she now lives with her husband, who is not Jewish, and her daughter and son. She started as executive director for ALEPH a little over a year ago.

SooJi Min-Maranda

Jewish Renewal, she said, is trans-denominational, enfolding many who also affiliate with another branch of Judaism, from Reform to Modern Orthodox. She knows Renewal devotees who keep Shabbat and kashrut, and others who do very little in the way of traditional observance.

Renewal services are often long. In Min-Maranda’s congregation, they do the full Torah reading with the addition of much singing and meditation. The service, which can take up to four hours, is “very prayerful, very soulful, very soul-searching,” she said.

And it’s not a performance. “There’s lots of dancing in concentric circles. People are part of the fabric of the service; there’s a palpable energy of aliveness.”

Jewish Renewal is “an enormous, wide-open tent for a new generation of seekers who want the deep roots of Judaism but also innovation,” she said.

She said she found it ironic that many of those whose synagogues and temples have incorporated the singing of niggunim, dancing and meditation have never heard of Jewish Renewal.

Neither ALEPH nor its seminary has a physical headquarters, so Min-Maranda is able to work easily from Ann Arbor. The organization has 40 affiliated communities across the country; the largest are Kehillah in Piedmont, Calif., and Romemu in New York City.

In the future, Min-Maranda hopes to incorporate more Earth-based, ecological practices into Jewish Renewal. She also wants to work to make the movement more multicultural and welcoming to Jews by choice and Jews of color.