The December Project: an Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery……A Book Review

I just completed reading The December Project: An Extraordinary Rabbi and a Skeptical Seeker Confront Life’s Greatest Mystery written by Sara Davidson. In 2009, when author, visionary, teacher and founder of the Jewish Renewal movement, Rabbi Schacter was 85 years old, he invited author Sara Davidson, a self-proclaimed skeptical seeker, into his home to talk, listen, record and eventually write about his last life stage or what the Rabbi calls the December years. 

This is what I would call a nontraditional biography. The author and the subject of the book, Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi dialogue and discuss, explore and challenge one another on probably the greatest mystery of all – mortality, death and how to live fully up until that last breath. The conversations pull the reader in as Schacter-Shalomi and Davidson, both at different life stages, are personally open and honest as they share, commiserate, disagree, question, kvetch, learn and grow together. And we the readers not only become privy to this intimate conversation, we are given exercises and practices to bring us closer to embracing an understanding and acceptance of our own mortality.

Interspersed between their talks, the author weaves us through the life of Zalman Schacter.  Born in Poland, he and his family escaped from Nazi occupied Europe.  Finding their way to New York City, Zalman Schacter followed up on his love of the Hasidic teachings and became an orthodox Rabbi. We learn about his 4 marriages, 11 children and how he became the sperm donor for a lesbian rabbi. With an uncompromising curiosity and a deep need to understand, gain more knowledge and expand his horizons, Rabbi Schacter was unable to stay boxed into a set of constricted rules and expectations and he befriended  some of the greatest thinkers and spiritual leaders of his time. Thomas Merton, the Dalai Lama and experiments with LSD with his friend Timothy Leary opened his heart and mind to the interconnectedness of all religions and spiritual practices.

What I find so rich and meaningful about The December Project is that we the readers get to witness the genuine realities- the pain, discomfort and suffering as Rebbe Zalman’s health fails. And yet intertwined within this reality is his ever present acceptance, commitment to be fully alive, his willingness to let go and his love and trust in God.

The December Project is a beautiful book for people of any faith or spiritual leaning.  The magic of this biography is that as we witness Zalman Schacter-Shalomi prepare for his last day, we get to vision a better tomorrow for ourselves.  

By Roberta Teller

From Age-ing to Sage-ing: A Profound New Vision of Growing Older – A Book Review

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From Age-ing to Sage-ing written by Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi and Ronald S. Miller presents a new vision for growing older……one that looks at old age as the natural and meaningful next step in our life cycle- the journey to the full completion of life –  not a dead end as we travel the latter years of life’s road.    

Challenging cultural norms and beliefs that see old age as a time of deterioration and decline, this paradigm redefines the third stage of life as one that can be active and spiritual, contemplative and practical  and purposeful and realistic. What is required is to do the inner work – through contemplative practices that allow us to look back, reflect, explore the lessons learned, harvest the gifts, make peace with the mistakes, understand the challenges – we ultimately see the vast panorama of our lives and from this, the wisdom flows.  

Elderhood, besides being a time of deep personal reflection and introspection carries much responsibility.  Following in the footsteps of many indigenous cultures where elders are revered for their great wisdom and honored for their contributions to the society, Rabbi Schacter calls upon elders to not only tap into their wisdom, as a form of personal growth, but to take the lessons learned, the life long skills  and to share it with others through mentoring, volunteering, becoming a steward of the earth and creating a lasting legacy that lives beyond our years. 

The strength of this book is that it is very real, honest and practical  It addresses the realities of growing older while offering a multitude of choices and options to live an old age that allows for a deeper and more profound experience of life and an acceptance and preparation for death. And yes, Rabbi Schacter takes death out of the closet. Instead of denial, he views dying “as a unique opportunity for spiritual awakening.” He articulates the importance of being fully prepared for the experience of ones death. He explores spiritual beliefs about a life after death. He even provides exercises in the preparation for death. 

And it is through stories, personal accounts, extensive research, exercises and practices, the authors offer the reader a road map into what Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi calls “an elderhood that is the anticipated fulfillment of life.” Age-ing to Sage-ing is a beautifully written and most important book that redefines what it means to grow old, be old and how to live fully, with meaning until we draw our last breath.  In a culture that glorifies youth and demeans the elderly, the teachings of Rabbi Schacter-Shalomi offer a new way of living and being alive.

 By Roberta Teller