MESHULLAM ZALMAN HAKOHEN SCHACHTER was born on August 17, 1924 in Zholkiev, Poland, to Shlomo and Hayyah Gittel Schachter. In 1925, his family moved to Vienna, Austria, where he spent most of his childhood. His father was a Belzer Hasid with liberal leanings, and thus educated Zalman in both a leftist Zionist high school—where he learned secular subjects like Latin and modern Hebrew—and a traditional Orthodox yeshiva, where he studied classical Jewish texts like Torah and Talmud.
In 1938, after the Nazi annexation of Austria to Germany, when Schachter was just 13, his family began the long flight from Nazi oppression through Belgium, France, North Africa, and the Caribbean, until the family finally landed in New York City in 1941.
While still in Antwerp, as a teenager, Schachter came into contact with a small group of Habad Hasidim, the last of the now extinct Niezhiner lineage. Enamored with their deeply contemplative and soulful approach to Judaism, he became a Habad Hasid. Thus, upon landing in New York, he quickly enrolled in the Habad yeshiva in New York, and in 1947, received his rabbinic ordination from the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva (Tomhei Temimim), in Brooklyn, New York.
Not long after his ordination, the sixth Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rabbi Yosef Yitzhak Schneerson (1880-1950), directed Schachter and his friend, Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach (1925-1994), to begin visiting college campuses to inspire young Jews in postwar America toward Judaism. Schachter also took up a post as a congregational rabbi in Fall River, Massachusetts, and later served as a congregational rabbi in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
By 1956, he had acquired a Master of Arts degree in Psychology of Religion (pastoral counseling) from Boston University and was ready to transition out of work as a congregational rabbi. He now wished to be a Hillel rabbi and soon accepted a position as such at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, Canada, and a teaching post in the Department of Religion there (which he would hold until 1975). Soon after, he was instrumental in the founding of the Department and Clinic of Pastoral Psychology at United College (later the University of Winnipeg). Along the way, in 1968, Schachter earned his Doctor of Hebrew Letters (DHL) from Hebrew Union College.
By his time, Schachter was effectively "divorced" from the Lubavitcher movement over issues relating to his controversial immersion in modern culture and intimate involvement with other religions, but continued his life’s work as an "independent" Hasid, teaching the experiential dimensions of Hasidism as one of the world's great spiritual traditions. The same year he received his DHL, while a postdoctoral fellow at Brandeis University, he was instrumental in launching the Havurah movement of American Judaism, helping to found Havurat Shalom in Somerville, MA.
The following year, inspired by Havurat Shalom, Christian Trappist spirituality and the discovery and circulation of the Dead Sea Scrolls, Schachter founded the B'nai Or Religious Fellowship (now ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal) with a small circle of students who wished to form an intentional spiritual community.
After years of cultivating his own vision of Jewish leadership, Schachter finally ordained his first rabbi, Daniel Siegel of Boston (one of the current leaders of ALEPH), in 1974. At the same time, he helped found the Aquarian Minyan of Berkeley, California, the west coast anchor of a new kind of Judaism deeply immersed in Judaism’s Hasidic spiritual tradition while simultaneously engaged with modern American ecumenism.
As he was laying the groundwork for this form of post-war American Judaism, he began to study Sufism and meet with Sufis in California. This encounter led to his being made a Sheikh in the Sufi lineage of Hazrat Inayat Khan in 1975. That year, he also became professor of Jewish Mysticism and Psychology of Religion at Temple University where he stayed until his early retirement in 1987, when he was named professor emeritus.
In 1980, as certain denominations of American Judaism began entertaining the idea of opening the rabbinate to women, Schachter and two others ordained one of the early influential women rabbis, Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb (later based in New Mexico).
In these years, Schachter added the name Shalomi (based on the word shalom or ‘peace’ in Hebrew) as a way of signally his desire for ‘peace’ in Israel and around the world. In 1985, feeling the effects of age and ceaseless activity, Schachter-Shalomi took a forty-day retreat at the Lama Foundation in New Mexico and emerged with a new teaching that became the foundation of his book From Age-ing to Sage-ing and the catalyst for the Spiritual Eldering movement.
In 1990, Schachter-Shalomi participated in a series of historic dialogues with His Holiness, the 14th Dalai Lama, in Dharamsala, India, memorialized in the bestselling book by Rodger Kamanetz, The Jew in the Lotus.
Eight years after his formal retirement from Temple University, he and his wife Eve Ilsen moved to Boulder, Colorado in 1995, where he accepted the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute (later Naropa University), finding a home there from which he could finally teach contemplative Judaism and ecumenical spirituality in an accredited academic setting.
In 2004, Schachter-Shalomi retired from Naropa University and participates in a Roundtable Dialogue with Nobel Peace Prize laureates in Vancouver. That year, he also co-founded the Sufi-Hasidic, Inayati-Maimuni Order with his student, Netanel Miles-Yépez.
In his last several years, Schachter-Shalomi was surfeited with honors. In 2012, he was awarded an honorary doctorate of sacred theology from the Starr King School for the Ministry, and again, in 2014, was awarded an honorary doctorate from Hebrew College in Boston, Massachusetts, for his many contributions to global Judaism and his influence upon the college itself. He passed on a short time later, on July 3rd, 2014.
“Reb Zalman in celebratory prayer at Baker’s Beach, California.” Photo credit: Yehudit Goldfarb, 1987.