Latest MA News US/World News The changing face of Hasidism in Northampton

NORTHAMPTON – The Hasidic community is popularly characterized by its
distinctive dress code—fur caps or black fedoras, wigs or scarfs, long
black coats, full-length skirts and blouses—directly descended from
the movement’s 18th century Eastern European foundation. It is
regarded as an insular Orthodox community resistant to the influence
of the secular modern world. Hasidism, however, encompasses over 130
distinct Orthodox groups that have evolved from the teachings of the
movement’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, and the lessons Hasidism offers
extend far beyond the ultra-Orthodox community. Those lessons
influenced a Jewish movement in the 1960s that has taken on the name
Jewish Renewal. Rabbi David Seidenberg’s is one more
project in the movement that is blurring the lines separating Hasidism
from the non-Orthodox Jewish culture. Seidenberg’s is
devoted to, “bringing the wellsprings of Chasidut as far as the
internet can carry them…for everyone: women and men, religious or
David Seidenberg was raised in Cherry Hill, N.J. in a non-observant
Jewish household. He attended a Reform synagogue that, when his family
first joined, did not allow its congregants to wear tallises or
yarmulkes. Despite joining a congregation, his father was adamantly
opposed to organized religion. Seidenberg’s path to become a rabbi and
leader in the Neo-Hasidic movement was, in part, due to the influence
of his great-grandfather, an observant Sephardic Jew of Syrian descent
who immigrated to the U.S. from Jerusalem. “I grew up non-observant,”
Seidenberg told the Jewish Ledger, “but having this very strong echo
from my great-grandfather, that stayed with me.” Vivid memories of his
great-grandfather at Passover, drumming for him while he danced and
leading the Seder prayers resurfaced when he attended Hillel at
Dartmouth College for the first time.
“When I heard the benching (blessing after meals) at Shabbat dinner,
which I hadn’t heard for some 15 years, it was very moving to me. It
really affected me.”
While pursuing a double degree in physics and in Asian religion,
Seidenberg became strictly observant and was introduced to the leaders
of the Havurah and Jewish Renewal movements of the 1960s.
Rabbi Michael Paley, at the time the Jewish chaplain at Dartmouth, was
a close friend of the leaders who shaped Havurah and Jewish Renewal.
Through Paley, Seidenberg was introduced to Rabbi Zalman
Schacter-Shalomi, Rabbi Arthur Waskow and Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, all
influential in the resurgence of interest in mystical Hasidic
practices among secular American Jews. Seidenberg’s reintroduction to
Judaism through these rabbis, in a place where there was no
established observant community, enabled him to fully explore his
“There was no one to tell us what Judaism should or shouldn’t be,”
Seidenberg said. “It was just a handful of people and we were all
trying to do it on our own. So we were very creative and very much
figuring out our own meanings for what everything was about.”
However, shortly after Seidenberg’s immersion into the Jewish counter
culture, a split occurred in the movement. The Havurah and Jewish
Renewal movements that were once a single community became two
distinct groups—the latter focused on mysticism and new-age
principles, the former concerned with rational Judaism grounded in
Torah study.
“For me this was very difficult,” Seidenberg said. “I wanted a Judaism
that was deeply rational, deeply grounded, deeply religious, deeply
observant, and deeply spiritual and mystical. This community that had
both was splitting into two, and I didn’t really feel that I had a
place anymore, because neither half held all the values that were
important to me.”
Seidenberg, however, continued his Jewish education and received
ordination from the Jewish Theological Seminary and Rabbi Zalman
Schachter-Shalomi. He held services for his circle of friends but
struggled to find his voice within the broader movement of
Neo-Hasidism—a struggle that was magnified by Seidenberg’s strong
commitment to social justice and environmental causes. In 1995, one
year after Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach passed away, Rabbi Seidenberg
organized a Hasidic egalitarian minyan in the Upper West Side of
Manhattan, the first of its kind anywhere, which is the model for the
Prayground minyan that now meets in the Pioneer Valley.
The minyan became a monthly tradition that brought together men and
women, students and rabbis, Orthodox and non-Orthodox observant Jews
and secular Jews in spirited, joyful prayer. In 2005, on the tenth
anniversary of that minyan, Seidenberg launched his website,, to teach Hasidic nigunim, which are old world spiritual
melodies. Two years later he relocated to Northampton, where he just
completed his first book on Kabbalah and ecology, which will be
published by Cambridge University Press this fall. His teachings on
ecology and Judaism are emerging as a new incarnation of Neo-Hasidism
that is influencing the evolution of the movement.
“People might say it’s not Hasidism if it’s not Orthodox,” Seidenberg
said. “But if some of the Rebbes have teachings that you feel like
you’re a disciple to, or even if you feel like you’re a disciple to a
special nigun (melody), you might call yourself a neohasid.”
Seidenberg has a very personal connection to the teachings of the
founder of Chabad, Schneur Zalman of Liady, and Rebbe Nachman of
Seidenberg’s website now includes much more than Hasidic melodies,
teaching Kabbalah (Jewish mysticism), new liturgy, and eco-Torah.
Seidenberg leads weekly discussion groups that examine the inner
meanings of passages from Jewish literature, including not just
mystical texts, but also Talmud and philosophy, and also shares these
teaching in the monthly Prayground Minyan that draws together a
diverse group of individuals for jubilant prayer. His lessons and
Prayground Minyan are open to everyone.
“You shouldn’t have to be Orthodox to gain the insights that Hasidism
has to offer,” Seidenberg said. “There is a high level of sexism and
conformity in parts of the Hasidic community, and that’s not
invigorating or inspiring. But the nigunim are. The willingness to
dance, to throw your body into a joyful passionate celebration of
everything going on around you, that is inspiring. When your whole
body and being is engaged in Judaism, it’s not just your brain and
your habits. You are actually living as a Jew, and living it with
passion. That’s the part of Hasidism I care about the most. For me,
Hasidism is code for fully, deeply embodied Judaism that draws on
mysticism and spiritual discipleship. Neo-hasidism combines this with
freedom of thought and, for me, a deep connection to the Earth.”

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