‘The Amen Effect’

‘The Amen Effect’

Rabbi Sharon Brous talks about listening

Rabbi Sharon Brous delivers a TED Talk in 2016. (Courtesy IKAR)
Rabbi Sharon Brous delivers a TED Talk in 2016. (Courtesy IKAR)

You never know what image is going to lodge itself in your brain and hibernate there, somewhere between your heart and your soul and your eyeballs (because images aren’t constrained by ordinary biology), ready to come out at odd times to perplex, engage, and instruct you.

When she was a student at the Jewish Theological Seminary, the Conservative movement’s intellectual stronghold on upper Broadway in Manhattan, Sharon Brous found a Mishnah that lodged itself. She knew that it meant something profound — but she had no idea what.

Rabbi Brous (although then, in the very late 1990s, before smicha, she was Ms. Brous), in wild love with the Talmud, was struck by Mishnah Middot 2:20.

Rabbi Sharon Brous delivers the invocation at Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s inauguration in 2017. Mr. Garcetti is a member of Ikar.

“All who entered the Temple Mount entered by the right, circled to the right and exited by the left, except for one to whom something had happened,” the text began. That person, who “entered and circled to the left,” would be asked why. “They replied: ‘I am a mourner,’ and they were blessed,” the text continued. Another counter-circler might answer “Because I have been ostracized,” and also would be blessed, although the content of the blessing is debated.

Because she knew that the text mattered, Rabbi Brous xeroxed it and stuck it inside her book, which she shelved.

Years later, the text fluttered out of the book; by then Rabbi Brous had an idea of what it meant. Eventually, it grew into both a vital part of her rabbinate and the foundational idea for her new book, “The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World.”

She also co-founded and led Ikar, the nondenominational, intensely searching Los Angeles synagogue that has become central to Jewish life in the city, and a source of inspiration to Jewish leaders across the United States. She’s become a prominent figure in public religious life.

Her story starts in New Jersey.

Sharon Brous, who is just turning 50, grew up in Essex County, first in Short Hills and then in Livingston. Her roots are deep in New Jersey. Her maternal grandfather, Sam Gordon, owned an appliance and electronics store, called Gordon’s, in Madison, and her mother, Marcia Gordon Brous, grew up there. Later, her father, Rick Brous, ran the store with his father-in-law, and then by himself.

Rabbi Brous celebrates Chanukah with the vice president, Kamala Harris, and her husband, Doug Emhoff, in December.

“We were members of B’nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, and I had a very strong sense of Jewish identity and connection,” Rabbi Brous said. “Madison was primarily non-Jewish, and this connected us even more deeply to the Jewish community.

“It was a very family-centered business, and the calendar revolved around Christmas,” she said. “It was retail. We were the only Jews for miles; we’d finally close the store on Christmas Eve, and we’d drive through the snowy streets and look at the Christmas lights. And then we’d get home, and we’d watch ‘The Ten Commandments.’”

Short Hills was “about 40 percent Jewish at the time,” she continued. “But I remember that there were three country clubs, and two of them had no Blacks and no Jews.”

Rabbi Brous went to Millburn for middle and high school. During that time she was active in NFTY, the Reform movement’s youth group. “I was very connected to the broader network of Reform Jews, and not connected at all to the broader Jewish community beyond that.

Rabbi Brous speaks at the Poor People’s Campaign in 2019.

“So when I went to college” — Columbia — “I was pretty stunned by encountering observant Jews, and realizing that this thing that was so core to my identity” — being Jewish — “was being engaged by the larger community in ways that were foreign to me. I had no idea about that kind of observance.

“I was stunned.

“For years, I tried to fit into a Jewish environment, realizing that I didn’t have the basic tools to enter those spaces. I always really felt as if I was part of the Jewish people, but every time I entered a Jewish space I realized that I was doing it all wrong, sitting when everyone else was standing and standing when they were sitting, facing the wrong direction, trying to make a conversation between handwashing and motzei.”

One of her many humiliating memories was the time that “I brought salad dressing to a dinner, and the host looked at the bottle and started screaming. She took a dish towel, wrapped it around the bottle, and threw it into the hallway. She said that I had totally treifed up the kitchen.” Rendered it unclean, that is. Unkashered it. “I didn’t even know what those words meant. I mean, I thought, ‘It’s salad dressing!’

“I did everything wrong. But I kept pushing myself into Jewish environments, because it was so important to me to be there.

“I realized that I was out of my depth. That led me to feel simultaneously alienated and humiliated and also really committed to finding a way to engage with the Jewish community, and to find my place in it.

“That’s what led me to almost every synagogue in New York City.”

Sharon Brous met David Light, a Camp-Ramah-going Conservative Jew from Philadelphia, on their first day at Columbia, and they’ve been together ever since; they married soon after they graduated from college and now have three children. Mr. Light is a screenwriter and producer at Disney.

Rabbi Brous stands with her friend and colleague, Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie, in hostage square in
Tel Aviv in October.

Back then, David was Sharon’s guide to Jewish life, as she battled the alienation that was the push to the pull she felt, a magnetic tug that was hard to explain and hard to resist. “I told David that I had to learn, so he asked his mother” — that’s Wendy Light, a long-time Jewish educator — “for a list of every synagogue in the city, and we started to go every Friday night.” Her sense of alienation grew — the push — but then “there was a piguah” — a terror attack — “in Buenos Aires” — the bombing of the Amia Jewish community center that killed 85 people in 1994 — “and it struck me in such a personal way, even though I’d never been in Israel and I didn’t know anyone in Buenos Aires, but it felt like it was my own tragedy.” That was the pull, in this case negative but still unmistakable.

So they kept trying out synagogues, and she turned into Goldilocks.

“Either we found environments like the one I had grown up in, where I felt like I’d already learned everything that I could from it, or I went to more observant ones, where nobody ever greeted us, and it felt like there was no joy.

Rabbi Brous is at a protest in Washington, DC, in 2020.

“Finally, one Friday night I told David that ‘this is it. This is the last one. If this doesn’t work, I’m done. We should be going to bars or parties like everyone else our age.’”

That was the night that they went to Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the unaffiliated-but-basically-Conservative Upper West Side shul known for its music and social activism. “We sat in the back row, and I wept the entire time. I remember Marshall” — that was Rabbi Marshall Meyer, the rabbi who’d returned to the United States after years in Argentina, where he’d battled the junta, at times successfully, to revitalize the old synagogue — “talking about HIV/AIDS. I remember him saying that it will be a moral crisis if we don’t fight for people’s lives. He spoke with such moral clarity.

“And then people started to sing, and they got up to dance, and I knew that I had to learn to be a Jew in that environment.”

She and David went to Israel for a semester. They lived in Jerusalem. “I had never been to Israel before, and I didn’t speak a word of Hebrew,” she said. “I had never picked up a sacred text. But I went on this journey to figure out what my grandparents had chosen to keep and what they had chosen to leave behind on their path to Americanization, to full acceptance in Chatham and Madison as businesspeople and Rotarians.

“And I started to learn. I fell in love with the Talmud, head over heels in love with the study of Talmud. I wanted to immerse myself in it, 14 hours a day. I was so stunned by how endlessly expansive the well of knowledge is, how you could never fully master a subject in Jewish text. There is always another voice, another position, another view. The spaciousness of the learning was completely intoxicating. I loved the idea of the endless journey that I could be on my entire life.”

And then there was the other side. “I also recognized the absence of voices like my own,” Rabbi Brous said. Women’s voices. “I felt a moral and spiritual imperative to learn. So many women before me did not have the opportunity — and now I could just take a Gemara class and learn. My tradition was calling out for voices that had been marginalized, and I felt I had to be part of it, as a kind of tikkun.” A repair.

Rabbi Brous and her husband, David Light, laugh with their three children.

“So I fell in love with a spacious, expansive, endless tradition, and also I felt the imperative to find my own voice within it,” she said.

Rabbi Brous had another experience that fueled her love for the texts and her desire to live with them. “I was studying at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and also with a charedi chavruta there. My chavruta was a woman who lived in Mea Shearim,” an extremely Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood. “We met once a week. She was genuinely brilliant; she ran her house, took care of her children, made all the family’s money. She did everything. She was the strongest woman. And she asked me if I wanted to go to a discovery weekend in the Old City, where I ultimately had an epiphany. I realized that not only was I in love with studying Torah, but I really believed in God.

“I thought about the people in the world who I admire the most, the people who I wanted to be. And I realized that they all had faith at the heart of their activities and their desire for social change.

“And it all came to me in this one moment. And I started to cry.”

This program was run by charedi men; it was a kind of keruv weekend, outreach, an attempt to pull people back into the heart of Jewish life. When they saw her crying, they gathered around her, and told her that she should take her newfound Jewish soul and use it to become a rebbitzin. That is, she should marry a rabbi.

It was not what she had in mind.

For years, Rabbi Brous dealt with not having been brought up around the sacred texts that she so loved. In a way, she missed out on being able to internalize them through childhood, she said, but in another way she benefitted because she took nothing for granted. For years, she could look at Jewish text and life as both an insider and an outsider.

Determined not to be embarrassed in a Jewish environment again, Rabbi Brous applied to rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, was accepted, and began her studies there. “I was in love with texts,” she said. “I wanted to sit in the beit midrash there and just learn, and that’s what I did for many years.”

The Brous family — from left, it’s Dev, Michael, Rick, Marcia, and Sharon Brous.

But she always had two passions — one for Talmud, the other for social justice. Before she decided to go to rabbinical school, she’d planned to be a civil rights attorney. And then, in 2000, there was a terrible flood in Mozambique. “And I really felt that I had to leave rabbinical school,” she said. “Here I am, studying these texts, and women there are drowning and dying. I can’t do anything to help them from here. What could I do? Recite Tehillim? I couldn’t figure out how that would be relevant.

“I had only a year and a half of school left, and this sent me into a major theological crisis.”

So she went to talk to her mentor from Columbia — which is after all just a few blocks south of JTS. “My mentor encouraged me to stay, and to marry these worlds — the world of ancient texts and rabbinics and the world of human suffering — in both of these places. So I spent the last year and a half in rabbinical school and in a master’s program at Columbia.

“It forced the integration of these worlds for me, because I was running up and down Broadway from an advanced class in Gemara to a class on conflict resolution and mediation. I wrote my master’s thesis about applying Rambam’s Hilchot Teshuva, the laws of forgiveness, to the reintegration of child soldiers in Liberia and Sierra Leone.

“I wanted to see if we could bring these worlds together. What would happen if we applied ancient wisdom to these crises of our time? That was very much a part of my growth.”

During her last year at JTS and her first year out of rabbinical school, Rabbi Brous was chosen to be a Marshall T. Meyer Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun. The full-circle-ness of being back at BJ, the place where she first started to believe that there was a place in the Jewish world for her, was deeply moving for her. “I had a moment, realizing that maybe eight years before, I had been an 18-year-old kid in the last row, crying. And now I was the person on the bimah, and it was my responsibility, as the person in the front, to see the person in the back. To see everyone in the room. And to hold them. This might be their first or last or only attempt to connect to their family and identity and history. What could I do to meet them with love? I felt the weight of that charge so strongly that I felt my knees giving in, and Marcelo” — that’s Rabbi Marcelo Bronstein, then one of BJ’s senior rabbis — “holding my arm, holding me up.

“This is such an honor. Such a sacred responsibility, to help hold people’s hearts. I was so overwhelmed by it. And without words, Marcelo told me, ‘Yes, you can do it.’”

“I was at B’nai Jeshurun for all kinds of moments of joy and heartache,” she said; that included the attacks of September 11.

One of the many things she learned during her stay at BJ, has refined since, and writes about in “The Amen Effect” is that when confronting pain, “we often think that our job is to fix what’s broken, instead of just being present.

“That’s a mistake that we often make in attempting to offer consolation,” she continued. “Thinking that our job as the nonmourner is to get the mourner out of feeling grief, instead of meeting them in it. Instead of just being present. Just saying amen.”

She also looks at the problem of loneliness, which is an inherent part of the modern world but can be alleviated if we can be vulnerable enough to ask for help — for an amen — and to offer it. To ask what’s wrong to someone walking in the other direction, to listen to the answer, and to validate it with amen.

When she finished her fellowship at BJ, Sharon Brous and David Light moved to California, so he could pursue his dream job in the entertainment industry while she found herself in the Jewish world. After working in a Solomon Schechter day school for a year, Rabbi Brous, her good friend Melissa Balaban, and a few others founded Ikar; Rabbi Brous has been its spiritual leader since it opened in 2004, and Ms. Balaban has been its executive director since 2007. It’s been growing and flourishing since it opened.

Ikar is a nondenominational Jewish community that doesn’t like to call itself a synagogue but functions as one, as well as a center for Jewish spirituality, searching, and learning. It sounds woo-woo to non-Californians, granted, but it is a community that inspires passionate connection, and offers soul-stirring music and sermons that are both challenging and deeply human. Rabbi Brous has been a very public figure since Ikar was created.

“The Amen Effect,” her first book, part memoir, part spiritual guide, grew out of her experiences with mourners, with people who feel like outsiders but would like to find their way inside.

There is some irony in it for her. Her father, Rick Brous, died just before the book was published, so while Rabbi Brous wrote it from the vantage point of someone who enters the Temple, turns right with the crowd, and seeks to comfort the mourners, when it was published she became someone who turns left, looking for comfort.

And of course the larger irony — although that word arguably is inappropriate in this context — is that the October 7 terrorist attacks in Israel changed our understanding of mourning because it became infinitely more raw for Jews in general, even those of us half the world away, and inexpressibly worse for Jews in Israel, and unbearably worse for those who suffered personal loss.

That has led Rabbi Brous to think about the tension between the instinct to be tribal and the desire for the universal. She hopes that the tribal will strengthen the universal, but that we still can be open to people unlike ourselves.

“I wrote this book in a different world and a different reality,” she said. “I wrote it as someone who by profession and by nature is always walking to the right and circling around to see who is there. And then my father died, after living a good life, a long life, and I am encountering the world as a mourner.

“I think that the Jewish people in America, particularly white Jews in America, were walking to the right in many ways. We were looking at people walking in the other direction, asking how we can be a good ally.

“And then all of a sudden we are turning to the left. We are broken hearted, full of sorrow, worry, and shock.”

But the lessons of her book — the lessons that she learned from the Talmud — can help.

When she began to read the book aloud to record it, “I was very concerned about how it was written for another time,” Rabbi Brous said. “I worried that it would not speak to this moment.

“But it does. It is ancient wisdom, written 2,000 years ago, but the rabbis understood that there is something eternal about the dynamic of the human psyche. They realized that there always would be people who would have to walk to the left.”

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