Schachter-Shalomi (cq), left, signs books for Linda Banashek (cq) after a speaking engagement and book signing at the Boulder Bookstore. Photo by Marty Caivano/April 11, 2005

Who Was Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi Really? Answers Depend on Who You Ask

To many people in and outside of Boulder, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi z”l was an enigma. The revered and beloved founder of the Jewish Renewal movement (a movement dedicated to gender equality and other progressive approaches to Judaism) and a Hassid, trained by some of the most well-regarded teachers in Lubavitch (one of the most conservative Orthodox sects in Judaism).

For some members of each group, how he moved comfortably between such polar-opposite approaches was a mystery.

And that mystery is the subject of the new book “The Real Zalman” by Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, himself a scholar, the author of over 90 books, and a YouTube influencer. He is not just a historian, nor does he write standard biography. “I analyze aspects of history. It’s not just history, not just ethnography, not just psychology. It’s all three.”

An energetic man of 62, born and raised in the Lubavitch community in Brooklyn, his enthusiasm for his subject bubbles over the phone like champagne. Having spent time talking to and researching the life of his subject, he has a strong opinion about the answer.

And he is coming to Boulder on June 25th to talk about it.

And to hear the thoughts of those with similar and differing conclusions.

What drew Rabbi Dalfin to Reb Zalman?

Rabbi Dalfin was a yeshiva student in the traditional Chabad mold and, apparently, Reb Zalman was very much on his mind and the minds of his classmates. He was known as a great student (1942-44), and then as a great teacher in the same institution. And then, in the 1960s “he got involved with other things. He was an enigma. How did he go from Chassidus to such a change in format? He said he was changing the format of Chassidus. It was perplexing to me.”

Rabbi Dalfin’s first book was about Reb Zalman’s “best friend” Shlomo Carlbach. “It was an ethnography, something I found very interesting.”

“In yeshiva, we’re all in our own little box, and everyone has their own place, and I’m better than you, and this one, he’s no good. I am a traditional Lubavitcher, but I was interested in other people. Reb Zalman was interested in davening and meditation, and so was I. I did it in a very kosher way. I did not go to monasteries, but I was interested and did a lot of davening and meditating. And so did he. I appreciated what he thought to do.”

And he wanted to know more. As it was 2010, and Reb Zalman was 85, and “the average person doesn’t live much longer, so I wanted to talk to him.”

The interview was recorded at Reb Zalman’s home and is available on YouTube. According to Rabbi Dalfin, “It was one of the best interviews he’s ever done because I got him to speak from the heart about things he had not talked about much.

“One of my biggest impressions was his non-materialistic attitude. What do I mean by that? His teacher at the Lubavitch yeshiva at 770 [Chabad-Lubavitch world headquarters at 770 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn] was a Jew by the name of Yisroel Jacobson, who had studied at the original yeshiva in Lubavitch,” with what amounts to Chabad royalty. First Rabbi Sholom Ber Schneerson, the fifth Lubavitcher Rebbe, then the sixth, Rabbi Yosef Yitzchak Schneerson. Jacobson came to the United States in 1926 and studied with the seventh and final Lubavitch Rebbe, Menachem Mendel Schneerson, known today simply as “The Rebbe.” Jacobson taught at the yeshiva until the 1970s. “He was probably the greatest activist in Lubavitch history.”

Reb Zalman was an attentive student. He took extensive notes (written in Yiddish with Hebrew characters), and he kept them. “His ability [ies] to remember, to articulate, to write are well known.”

According to Rabbi Dalfin, these notes contain valuable historical and educational information from a great rabbi, especially since “they include lots on “Tanya”, which is like the bible of Chabad.

“I asked if I could have a copy and he said, ‘Sure!’” This answer astonished Rabbi Dalfin. “When you have something valuable, you are reluctant to give it away, and you surely don’t say ‘sure!’.

He remembers asking if Reb Zalman had a copy machine. “Yes,” but it was “old and broken, used only for small odds and ends. “He showed it to me, and it was old and decrepit. I thought, ‘Here is a man who is scholarly, and people worship him, surely they could buy him a better copy machine.” But Reb Zalman wasn’t fussed about it. It served his purposes.

“But he wanted me to have the best possible copy, so he told me, ‘Go to Kinko’s and make yourself a copy’. This was also phenomenal. To trust to give something so valuable to someone you’ve never met in your life. Maybe I would steal it. Maybe I would ruin it.”

The next issue was transportation. Having been dropped at Reb Zalman’s home by his host, Rabbi Scheiner of Boulder Center for Judaism, Rabbi Dalfin had no way to get to Kinko’s. He recalled his shock when Reb Zalman said, “What’s the problem? Take my car.” He replied that he was not insured; was a stranger. No matter.

“It was clear he had no attachment to the manuscript, to the car. It was genuine old-country generosity. [That] was “one of my greatest impressions.”

Those who knew Reb Zalman during his life in Boulder would not be so surprised. He was known as someone who was generous with his time, his learning, his spirit, and his things.

Join us for an extraordinary gathering marking the YAHRZEIT OF REB ZALMAN and exploring the duality of his identity as a Chasid and founder of Renewal with Rabbi Chaim Dalfin, historian ethnographer, and author of the new book “The Real Zalman

Sunday, June 25, Boulder JCC, 6007 Oreg Way
4 pm: Talk by Rabbi Dalfin followed by Q/A 

The talk is free however donations or sponsorship is appreciated.

RSVP here:

For more information contact Chany @ (303) 494-1638 or


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