The essence is to wake us all up

The essence is to wake us all up

Ikar founder Rabbi Sharon Brous and local leaders talk about building a living Jewish community

It’s Purim at Ikar!

Rabbi Sharon Brous radiates intensely concentrated passionate hummingbird energy in almost tactile waves.

It is hard to imagine how anyone could have done what she did – created and maintained a Jewish community that has grown wildly, attracted devoted members, brought disaffected Jews back to Judaism, juggled the tensions between tradition, innovation, accessibility, and fidelity – but once you meet her, you can see that if anyone could have undertaken that impossible-sounding feat, it would have to be her.

Ikar, the Los Angeles synagogue that Rabbi Brous imagined and shaped 10 years ago, is now a 580-plus family shul, with a 150-child religious school, a 52-child early childhood program, a multigenerational membership, and a growing future. Rabbi Brous has garnered so much recognition and so many awards almost off-handedly – on the Forward’s 50 most influential Jews for years! On Newsweek’s Top 50 rabbis list for years, once as number one! Giving the benediction at Barack Obama’s second inauguration! – that it is hard to realize that she is only 40.

How did she do it? How did Rabbi Brous, who grew up in Livingston and Short Hills, got her undergraduate degree at Columbia, and earned her smicha at the Jewish Theological Seminary, parlay this fairly conventional background into the creation of Ikar?

First, there was her own re-awakening to Judaism; the Jewish life she’d known as a child was strengthened and flourished during a stay in Israel, and then nourished as a member of Manhattan’s Congregation B’nai Jeshurun. She spent her last year of rabbinical school and her first as a rabbi as a Marshall Meyer Fellow at B’nai Jeshurun, learning how to interweave music, spirituality, and social justice from that large and innovative shul. She went to Los Angeles in 2002 with her husband, David Light. He was going to pursue a career in screenwriting, and she took a job teaching in a Jewish day school. They were both 27 years old.

“I loved teaching Torah, but I kept meeting young Jews – hundreds of young Jews – who were smart and interesting and creative and totally disconnected from Jewish life,” she said.

“We made friends, from David’s work and from mine; we met friends of friends,” she said. “There were a lot of David’s old Camp Ramah friends. And I felt a sense of great sadness because there were all these incredibly talented creative young people who would not engage in Jewish life, and who had no idea of how Jewish liturgy and life could touch them.

“Even the friends from USY and Ramah could find no way to connect to a meaningful Jewish experience,” she said. (USY – United Synagogue Youth – is the Conservative movement’s youth movement, and Camp Ramah is the nationwide network of Conservative summer camps.) “The camp people knew what it felt like from when they were 11, or 14, or 18. They had Shabbes at the lake, all dressed in white, and it was beautiful and powerful and meaningful, and then they walked into conventional synagogues as adults, and there was nothing there.

“Camp is extraordinary. It can open up people’s hearts and minds. It helps you believe in the possibility of a deep Jewish life, but when you finally have to leave – when you’re 17, or 27, or 40 – you can’t find that anywhere else.”

Surrounded by crowds of no-longer-engaged and never-engaged Jews, Rabbi Brous felt a deep sadness. She and her husband became involved with organizations like Bend the Arc and Reboot, but she still felt a lack.

Years later, she was able to put into words something that she’d felt back then.

“I realized that what disengaged young Jews are rejecting has nothing to do with Judaism,” she said. “It has to do with the 20th-century iteration of institutional Jewish life. What they objected to was what they saw as being formal, please-rise-please-be-seated, spiritually empty, often intellectually unchallenging, sometimes dishonest, socially manipulative, politically out of alignment, and generally lacking in resonance.”

This view was most prevalent, although not confined to, people in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s. “It is an allergy to 20th-century Jewish life,” Rabbi Brous said.

(As she made clear, she was talking only about the non-Orthodox world. “The Orthodox world is trending differently,” she said.)

And then, last year, the Pew study put numbers behind much of what she had intuited. “It was that 22 percent of Jews who were asked, ‘What is your religion?’ said ‘None,'” she said. “Everyone is baffled. Who are those people? But I realize that most of the people are the ones I have met.

“Not one of them has not wanted to take one day out of the week and designate that as a time when they can change the rhythm of their lives temporarily, go off the grid, and re-engage with their dreams. None of them are rejecting Shabbes. I haven’t ever met any of these young disengaged hipster Jews who reject the idea of prayer or mindful practice, and none of them have ever rejected the idea that social-change work should be a core religious practice and outgrowth of our spiritual and ritual practice; they have never rejected the idea that we can elevate the most mundane things in our lives – waking up, going to the bathroom, sipping a cappuccino, going to sleep.

“None of them reject the idea that the community can hold and sustain you through your darkest hour, and join you in celebration.

“They are not rejecting any core Jewish concept – tefillah, Shabbat, tikkun olam, talmud Torah, or even the potential of connecting with God.

“What they actually are rejecting is this 20th-century iteration of Jewish life, which happened to work perfectly for my grandparents, and theirs, who were either immigrants or immigrants’ children, who wanted the Jewish version of a Protestant church. They got that, and it worked for them.”

It doesn’t work any more, she said.

“But if we could only figure out the proper translation media to get it into people’s hands, they would receive it. In fact, the very people who seem to be rejecting it are hungry for it.”

The first year that Rabbi Brous and Mr. Light were in Los Angeles, they held occasional minyanim in their living room, and they invited 30 people over for a tikkun leil Shavuot. That night they studied Torah, discussed the road map for peace in the Middle East, and learned about the history of the song Hava Nagila, among other things. The minyanim drew mainly young rabbis and rabbinical students; the tikkun attracted people who knew very little about Judaism. It confirmed Rabbi Brous’s instincts. These people were not hungry for community, she said. They already have it. “They already have beautiful and full lives.” But they are hungry for Judaism, “if we can show the beauty of Jewish life to them, they love it and they want it,” she said.

So for a year and a half, Rabbi Brous just listened to people, learning “what they yearned for.” Then she met Melissa Balaban, then a dean at USC’s law school, and her husband, Adam Wergeles. The couple – parents of young children, and slightly older than what Rabbi Brous has come to see as her target demographic – said that they had tried synagogue after synagogue but found a home at none of them. “We talked about the profound disconnect among religious institutions, with a tendency toward extremism and fundamentalism on one side, and apathy and indifference on the other, and the need to claim a serious voice for human dignity and peaceful resolution to conflict.

“I believed that if we put out an iteration of Judaism that had purpose, was meaningful, authentic, and creative, then they would come to it.

“I wanted to help stake out this ground of deep, passionate, dignity-centered religious life.”

Ms. Balaban left feeling “cautiously ecstatic,” Rabbi Brous reported.

She and her husband, as well as Ms. Balaban and her husband, each sent out 10 emails, announcing a religious service. Having invited 40 people, they optimistically set up chairs for 20; 135 showed up. “It was 2004, so it was just before Facebook,” Rabbi Brous said. “Everybody knew each other. We were all connected through one of the four people who sent out the emails.”

Most of the people who came did not have much Jewish background, and the service was traditional, but it was one of the most moving davening experiences she’d ever been part of, she reported.

So that week, Rabbi Brous gave notice at her school; she would finish out the year but then leave to start Ikar.

It was a huge risk. She had a seven-month-old baby; her husband, as a writer, did not have a regular salary. (Sharon Brous and David Light now have three children.) “I had no certainty that it would work, but I thought we had to try it,” Rabbi Brous said. “I loved working at the school, but I knew that it was not what God put me on earth to do. I knew that this was.”

Ikar launched in July 2004. “We had no space, no money, no photocopier. It was totally grassroots, just people showing up early to set up chairs.”

She would arrange house parties, “little gatherings in people’s homes. I would ask the hosts what it was that they and their friends think about, and what keeps them up at night.” From there came ideas like a group for single women. That in itself is not a new idea, but “they had never thought there was a Jewish frame for it, and I would come up with a text. And of course there was a social dimension to it, with people sitting together drinking wine.” People loved it.

Ikar took off.

(The community’s name means essence; it is the point, the guiding principle, the focus, and the reason for all the rest.)

Rabbi Brous has set the tone for a culture of experimentation, fluidity, and creative discomfort. “I am a very big self-critic generally, and especially when it comes to davening,” she said. “I am very attentive to the mix in the space. If I feel bored in services, or if I feel that it’s getting stale, we stop in the middle and fix it.

“There are so many artificial constraints – I want to create a space where people can have a real experience. Sometimes that upsets people, but that’s okay. I just want to wake us all up.

“Sometimes I am equally uncomfortable. I am not the magician in the front of the room, making things happen. Sometimes I am also taken by surprise or made uncomfortable.”

For example? “Things that will awaken us do not always feel good,” she said. “We are constantly moving things around, making space for spontaneity, and that is not always comfortable. I get nervous about things, but that’s good.

“I am really okay with tension.”

She experiments, secure in the knowledge that although failure feels terrible, at times it is necessary.

“About a year ago, a couple of hours before kabbalat Shabbat services, I realized that I wasn’t excited about davening that night,” she said. “I usually look forward to it, but I was getting bored.

“So I moved us into a room that was a third of the size of the usual one, knowing that we’d have the same number of people. I put up a sign saying, ‘Discomfort is better than boredom.’

“It was a total disaster. There are glass doors at the back of the room, and everyone stood outside them, in the porch. No one would come in.

“There were maybe seven people in the room. Everyone else was outside. I kept asking them to come in, but they wouldn’t. I was a huge brilliant public failure.

“And then we did it again the next week, and people came back and said ‘Oh my God, we’re doing this again. We hate it.’ Most of them came in this time, but they stood in straight lines, as if there were duct tape on the floor. I kept saying that I want an escape from the straight lines – what would happen to a Jew who could move a little bit? – and people thought it was weird.

“And then we did it a third time, and it was the best davening I had ever experienced.”

Once, she said, when she was asked how she could be so brave, she said, “It’s not courage. It’s a form of selfishness. I wasn’t willing to be in a place where we would fake-daven. I don’t want to pretend to daven. I want to really pray.”

There is a tension in this, of course, she acknowledged. She wants people to be awakened, and that might cause some discomfort. On the other hand, she does not want people to be alienated. At times that line is fine, and at times she has crossed it.

One year at Rosh Hashanah, she said, she pushed everyone to prostrate themselves during the Great Aleinu. “I told them that this will be a practice that will be uncomfortable for all of you, but I ask every one of you to do it,” she recalled.

“The spiritual power of this one ritual moment is unmatched all year for all of us, individually and collectively,” she continued. “All of us acknowledge that I can’t control everything, no matter how hard I try. I cannot. We put our faces to the ground and our hands up to God and say help me.

“All of us – the atheists, the cynics, the diehards – all of us went down. There were 440 people in the room, and everyone went down. So many people were crying! It was so powerful.”

But it was not a universally welcomed experience. One man, who had been among her earlier supporters, “went down, and then he got up and he left and he never talked to me again,” Rabbi Brous said. “He was really angry.”

She tried to get in touch with him. He relented only once in the 10 years that have passed since then.

“You really broke my heart,” he told her. “And I didn’t ask to have it broken.”

Music is a crucial part of prayer at Ikar. Rabbi Brous had first-hand experience of its wordless, bypassing-the-brain,-straight-to-the-heart power at B’nai Jeshurun. Unlike the practice in Manhattan, however, at Ikar she uses only drums, but no other instruments.

Her musical director, Hillel Tigay, “is a rabbi’s kid” – his father is the biblical scholar Dr. Jeffrey Tigay, who has retired from the University of Pennsylvania – “and he has incredible fluency with the nusach,” Rabbi Brous said. “He’s a Torah reader – can jump up and read anything with no notice – and is also an extraordinary musician. He’s not a trained chazzan – he came to L.A. from Philly as a rocker, and he has an eclectic musical palate.

“We learn together every week,” she said. That strongly influences the music as well.

The music is a mix – “traditional Jewish liturgical music, Arabic belly dancing music, rock music. Some Carlebach, some Ramah tunes, some Sufi chants. Sometimes it’s something you wouldn’t associate with davening at all.

“The music isn’t the same from week to week. The basic feeling is the same, but I feel that the world changes and we change from week to week, so why shouldn’t the music?

“There is always the core service, and there is always some element of surprise. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”

She does not use musical instruments for a number of reasons, she said. For one thing, “I want Ikar to be a holy space for people from diverse religious backgrounds. I know that not everyone will come, because there is a woman rabbi and because at times we have to use a microphone, but I didn’t want people to be uncomfortable for that reason.

“I also don’t like using instruments for halachic reasons,” she said. “And I also don’t want a service dependent on professional musicians playing beautiful music. I want to empower people to do it for themselves.”

Professional musicians also made failure less likely, she said, and in music, too, beauty can come from imperfection. “Sometimes we start on different keys, and then we all giggle.

“About three years in, we had an incredible moment,” she remembered. When the congregation started to sing the Shema, no one was in the same key. “It was cacophonous,” Rabbi Brous said. “It was dissonant.” It sounded awful.

But then, on the second word, “We found each other. It was beautiful.

“Life is like that,” she said. “Sometimes it is painful and messy, and sometimes you have to figure out how to find beauty anyway.”

Ikar is a community that is in a state of constant struggle and tension – even if one of the tensions between that idea – the need for struggle – and its golden laid-back California glow. “It’s really serious, and we’re constantly making fun of ourselves at the same time,” Rabbi Brous said. “We are at the same time pious and impious.” Ikar evokes a wide range of emotions in its members – who include both the formerly unaffiliated and such Conservative heavy-hitters as Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies in Los Angeles, and Rabbi Aaron Alexander and Rabbi Cheryl Peretz, both associate deans there – as it plays as well with the tension between comfort and discomfort, between home as the place that welcomes you and as the place that knows you well enough to challenge you deeply. The tension between the need to face outward, to where social justice is pursued, and to face inward, to pursue a relationship with God, is a foundational one as well.

“We are a halachically serious community, and we want this space to be accessible to anyone and everyone who is looking for a meaningful way to explore and engage,” Rabbi Brous said. “We don’t want people to walk away from services saying, ‘amazing, amazing.’ We want them to feel awake.

“We want them to feel that there is something they can do when they are awake” – that’s the social justice component, the work in the world – “and ritual is designed to awaken us.”

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