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Michael Strassfeld

STRASSFELD, MICHAEL (1950– ), U.S. rabbi and educator. Born to a rabbinic family, his father Meyer Strassfeld was an Orthodox rabbi in Dorchester, Massachusetts, who moved to a Conservative synagogue in Marblehead. A graduate of Brandeis University (B.A. 1971, M.A. 1972), Strassfeld was influenced by American anti-establishment "counterculture" in the late 1960s. He was active in the havurah (Jewish religious fellowship) movement as part of a Jewish counterculture, cultivating personal involvement and knowledge as alternatives to the passivity and superficiality of Judaism as practiced in the conventional American middle-class synagogue. Between 1973 and 1980, while a member of havurot in Boston and New York, he co-edited the three volumes of the highly popular The Jewish Catalog, a do-it-yourself guide to Jewish living designed to make Jewish knowledge and havurah-style practice accessible to Jews disaffected with the conventional synagogue. Between 1979 and 1982 he served as chairperson of the National Havurah Committee, the coordinating body of independent havurot in North America.

In 1982 Strassfeld assumed the first of a series of positions in Congregation Ansche Chesed in New York City, a run-down synagogue amenable to experimenting with innovative practices in order to survive. He opened the synagogue as a venue for several havurah-inspired minyanin (prayer quorums) accommodating different prayer styles, and applied insights derived from the Jewish counterculture to the congregational setting.

His realization that the synagogue as the central institution of American Jewry could be a venue for innovation in Jewish life led him to pursue rabbinical studies. In 1991 he was ordained by the Reconstructionist movement, which had cultivated havurot and a participatory spirit of innovation since its inception as a distinct denomination in the early 1960s. From 1991 to 2001 Strassfeld served as rabbi of Congregation Ansche Chesed. In 2001 he became rabbi of the Society for the Advancement of Judaism in New York, a congregation known for its creative approach to Judaism since its establishment by Mordecai M. Kaplan in 1922.

Strassfeld has been active in infusing elements of the ecstatic worship and intimate community associated with Ḥasidism into American Jewish life. The resulting synthesis, known as "neo-Ḥasidism," draws from the egalitarianism of the havurah while recognizing a role for the "rebbe," or charismatic spiritual leader. Neo-Ḥasidism originated in the late 1960s as a motif differentiating the Jewish counterculture from "establishment" Judaism of that time. In his books and teaching, and especially by assuming the rabbinate of an urban congregation, Strassfeld has embodied the principle of introducing neo-Ḥasidism into the mainstream of contemporary American Judaism.

His major publications include A Book of Life (2002); A Night of Questions: A Passover Haggadah, co-editor J. Levitt. (2000); The Jewish Holidays (1985); A Shabbat Haggadah, editor (1981); The Third Jewish Catalog, co-editor S. Strassfeld (1980); A Passover Haggadah, editor (1979); The Second Jewish Catalog, co-editor S. Strassfeld (1975); The Jewish Catalog, co-editors R. Siegel and S. Strassfeld (1973). He has also contributed articles to Jewish periodicals, notably Response, Shma, and Tikkun.

Sources: Encyclopaedia Judaica. © 2007 The Gale Group. All Rights Reserved.