Meshullam Zalman Ha-Kohen 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 considered himself a Belzer Hasid, a Jew who follows the school of Hasidic thought and practice associated with the line of rebbes from the town of Belz. At the same time, his family was liberal, and educated Zalman in a leftist Zionist high school, where he learned secular subjects like Latin and modern Hebrew, as well as 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 in Antwerp, Belgium as a teenager, Schachter began to frequent a circle of Chabad hasidim, a different school of Hasidic thought originating in the town of Lubavitch. Schachter became so enamored with this approach to Judaism, that he became a Chabad hasid while still in Europe. Upon landing in New York, he enrolled in the Chabad yeshiva in New York, and in 1947, received his rabbinic ordination from the Central Lubavitch Yeshiva, now located in Brooklyn, New York, far from its origins in eastern Europe.Not long after Schachter's ordination, the Lubavitcher Rebbe of the time saw the need to move away from an insular Judaism that stressed internal community and instead rebuild that which was destroyed in Europe during the war. He imagined doing this by spreading Judaism as far and wide as it could be spread through Chabad rabbis known as “emissaries.” Chabad’s first two emissaries were Schachter, now in his mid-20s, and his friend Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, each of whom travelled to college campuses to inspire young Jews in postwar America toward Judaism. Schachter also? (after he was an emissary?) took up a post as a congregational rabbi in Fall River, Massachusetts. Later, he served as a congregational rabbi in New Bedford, Massachusetts.
By 1956 he had acquired a Master of Arts degree in the 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 University of Winnipeg). Along the way, in 1968, Schachter earned his Doctor of Hebrew Letters (DHL) from the seminary of Reform Judaism, Hebrew Union College.
In those twenty years, Schachter grew increasingly interested in the spiritual ecumenism and experimentation he encountered on college campuses, an encounter that estranged him from his Chabad origins. He was effectively "divorced" from the Lubavitcher hasidim over issues relating to his controversial immersion in modern culture and other religions, but he 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 in American Judaism when he and a small group of others formed 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 not found in existing Jewish institutions.
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 initiation as a Sheikh in the Sufi Order 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 (who was later based in New Mexico).
As Schachter, who 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, turned sixty, he began feeling his body aging. In 1985, 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.
Eight years after his formal retirement from Temple, in 1995 he moved to Boulder, Colorado, and accepted the World Wisdom Chair at the Naropa Institute (later Naropa University) and found a home from which he could finally teach contemplative Judaism and ecumenical spirituality in an accredited academic setting.
In 2004, Schachter retired from Naropa University. That year, he also co-founded The Desert Fellowship of the Message, the Sufi-Hasidic, Inayati-Maimuni Order with Netanel Miles-Yepez, combining the Jewish Hasidic and Islamic Sufi traditions.
Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi passed away peacefully on July 3, 2014 at the age of 89.