Rabbi Sharon Brous never wanted to build a synagogue.
Six years ago, when Brous met in a Santa Monica living room with a few families looking for a change in their Jewish life, she gave them a word of warning as they built up a frenzy of excitement about their mutual dream for a spiritually driven, morally active community.
“I told them that I was not interested in creating another synagogue or minyan — Los Angeles already has many great ones. What I wanted to do was create a new model of Jewish community — one that would challenge assumptions and push boundaries, one that would help us reimagine what Jewish life and Jewish practice could look like,” Brous said.
“I told them that if it turns out in five or 10 years that we’ve built a lovely synagogue, I’m going to find us a great young rabbi to take over, and I’m going to medical school and I’ll work for Doctors Without Borders, because that is not what I want to build,” she said.
That meeting turned out to be the founding of IKAR (Hebrew for “essence”), a community that meets every Shabbat at the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) and has grown to 400 member units. Within its first year, IKAR had earned a national reputation for tapping into a rich vein of Jewish life, attracting everyone from the unaffiliated to lifelong super-Jews.
The fact that Brous is willing to announce to a synagogue-centered Jewish world that she wants to be something different — something better — is emblematic of the earnest chutzpah that has earned her almost cultlike allegiance from admirers, a flurry of national recognition and a mixed reaction from some congregational leaders, who complain of the amount of attention heaped on IKAR.
“The idea was to create an opportunity for Jews to engage in traditional Jewish ritual and practice, while also learning and doing social justice work together in a community. I wanted to speak to their hearts and minds, to call for an integration of the spiritual, social, political and emotional self,” Brous said. And while IKAR didn’t target a specific population, “We wanted to realize this Jewish vision in a voice and with a vibe that would resonate with people who might find themselves outside the fold of conventional Jewish life.”
Today, IKAR’s success has brought it to a crossroads, nudging it closer to the world of institutional structure it initially associated with stagnation and emptiness.
IKAR now has a budget of $1.1 million, eight full-time staff members and three part-timers, in addition to about a dozen teachers for a religious school program with 60 students. Friday night services attract about 200 people, and the High Holy Days brought in 1,500 last year. Next year, IKAR will open an early childhood center and start a post-b’nai mitzvah teen program.
“I think that, in any organization, this kind of growth is the biggest challenge. We don’t want to lose the sanctity of our Shabbat service, or the level of connection among community members, or the overwhelming participation in the songs and the dancing that goes on,” said Fred Kramer, chairman of IKAR’s board. “We want to figure out what the best way is to continue to grow the community without losing the really unique environment.”
Brous is excited about the growth, and she believes that with the infrastructure solidifying, IKAR is well poised not only to continue honing its model, but to turn outward.
“I have heard from so many people — especially young and unaffiliated — that they gave up on Jewish life altogether because they found it spiritually empty, intellectually dishonest, morally inconsistent and socially unstimulating,” Brous said. “IKAR is part of a national trend toward revitalization of Jewish engagement and Jewish life. ... The Jewish community looks different today than it did six years ago when we started. I know IKAR is not alone in this, but we are a significant part of the trend, and I am gratified and humbled by that.”
This week, IKAR is hosting a conference, “Live, Pray, Learn,” where 55 lay and rabbinic leaders from around the country are gathering to explore how to create more dynamic and meaningful prayer experiences. Brous’ mentor, Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, as well as local rabbis, will join IKAR leadership to teach sessions that include “Texts That Make Your Hands Shake,” “How Traditional Liturgy Can Break Your Heart Open” and sessions on obstacles in prayer and building a spiritual team. Attendees will experience an IKAR Shabbat, along with text study, hiking and yoga.
The conference was born out of the dozens and dozens of phone calls Brous says she gets from Jewish leaders around the country asking one big question: What has IKAR done so right?
An All-Star Rabbi
IKAR is not alone in inspiring members with creative spirituality and a focus on bettering the world.
In fact, synagogue experts say Los Angeles is at the vanguard of a national trend in creating inventive worship opportunities that appeal to Jews who were done with, or never got into, Jewish life.
The soulful services of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s independent Nashuva Minyan, the hip scene at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live, The Happy Minyan and Ohr HaTorah’s alternative vibes, Valley Beth Shalom and Temple Isaiah’s efficacy in community building and social justice, Valley Outreach Synagogue’s model of small subcommunities, Shtibl Minyan’s do-it-yourself model, B’nai David’s work with the homeless and Temple Israel of Hollywood’s pivotal role in Big Sunday — all are part of a national trend of spiritual innovation leading to changes in how one relates to the world.
So why all the hype surrounding IKAR?
IKAR seems to have found a formula that offers simultaneously the consistency of community without the weight of traditional institutional structure.
And without a doubt, one of IKAR’s greatest assets is Brous herself.
Brous is the visionary behind IKAR, which means that at this early stage of its existence, the vision and the visionary are inextricably linked.
“I think that with any new organization that is led by a charismatic leader, there are going to be some number of years where that leader is critical and crucial,” said IKAR executive director Melissa Balaban, who, with her husband, hosted that first meeting in their living room.
Brous, 36, is intense and passionate, with articulate and thoughtful ideas flowing naturally, as if she is always thinking about the vision of IKAR — which she is. Her teaching demonstrates both a vast knowledge and impressive acuity, and a gift for speaking to the heart. She balances her intensity with a sense of humor and reaches out to people with genuine compassion.
She was ordained at the Conservative Jewish Theological Seminary and is halachically observant and supremely respectful of tradition, though eager to experiment. She and her husband, David Light, a writer, have three children ages 6 and under, and she works long and packed days, traveling often to spread IKAR’s work.
Congregants speak of Brous in hyperbole — as the only one in the country doing what she does, a brilliant teacher, an all-star, a genius. Outsiders, however, regularly throw around references to IKAR’s “cult of personality” and “googly-eyed” members.
Brous has made multiple appearances in the “Forward 50,” which identifies influential national Jewish leaders; in Newsweek’s lists of top rabbis; and in Slingshot’s roster of hot Jewish organizations. In 2008, she received the Jewish Community Foundation’s first Inspired Leadership Award, which came with a $100,000 grant. A few weeks ago, she was invited to the White House for Jewish Heritage Month.
What works for her, observers say, is that her leadership is genuine.
“I think one of the most important secrets to the success of IKAR is that Sharon wanted to create a spiritual community that she would be happy in and comfortable in, and would find meaningful.
When a spiritual leader feels a membership in the community, it gets reflected,” said Ron Wolfson, Fingerhut professor of education at American Jewish University and president of Synagogue 3000, a think tank and resource center for synagogue invigoration.
But even those within the community acknowledge there was a level of risk in being so rabbi-centered.
“She’s still critical, but I think we’ve evolved past the point where we were a couple years ago — where if something had happened to Sharon, IKAR would have been done,” Balaban said.
But if IKAR’s success to date is attributable in such large measure to Brous, do other communities have a chance at re-creating the model?
“It’s not about replication — nobody is going to be able to replicate IKAR. But you can apply the principles and lessons of IKAR’s success,” Wolfson said.
He cites a recent study that points to some of these elements: participatory culture, a sense of sacred purpose and the idea of integrating all aspects of the community. Above all is a willingness to take risks.
Brous says experimentation is at the heart of IKAR.
“Part of what we do at IKAR is we question the assumptions around every single holiday, every single program. For every Jewish experience, we ask ourselves, ‘What is the essence of this, and how can we make that essence manifest through our programs and events?’ And even if there is a way everyone else does it, even if there is an easier way and there is a model for it, we might choose to create a brand-new model,” Brous said.
Riffing the Prayers
The davening at IKAR, for instance, is never the same from week to week.
Brous works closely with Musical Director Hillel Tigay, a composer and musician who tends toward the quirky side, with chunky glasses, purple socks, a collection of tweed jackets and vintage ties, and dry humor.
“We found that the most important thing for us to do is to be inspired ourselves. It’s not that we’re self-absorbed. The modus operandi is if we’re moved by the davening, then other people will be. If we’re deeply engaged, you can read it on our faces; if we’re bored with it, that transfers to the congregation, too,” Tigay said.
He likens the davening team — himself, the rabbis, and a rotation of percussionists and vocalists — to a jazz ensemble, with spontaneous riffs. The team members check in with each other before they start, getting a sense of one another’s moods and of the community. Do they need upbeat this week or something more soulful and somber?
“It’s about being present, which is so much of what we strive for — to avoid perfunctory engagement with Jewish ritual. We strive to take ritual, which is about doing something over and over, and do it differently every time,” Brous said.
Tigay composes much of the music himself, going for a tribal and ancient feel, with more than a dash of the contemporary.
The prayers are in Hebrew — IKAR uses a Conservative prayer book and doesn’t skip anything.
On a recent Saturday morning, the language didn’t seem to be a barrier to full participation in the singing, brought to life by percussion accompaniment — Jewish law prohibits musical instruments, and Brous believes that instruments inhibit spontaneity and create the feel of performance.
When it came time for the Shema, Brous asked congregants to recite the six-word prayer as a meditation, with each word exhaled in a single, elongated breath. Then, she asked congregants to pick only one of the words of the prayer to speak to them at that moment, whether it be Listen, or God, or One. Each individual recited only that word aloud, producing a collective Shema.
In the davening and other aspects of IKAR, Brous is detail-oriented, keeping a tight lock on quality control. It is one of the things that makes IKAR successful but also earns Brous some criticism from people who feel the control goes too far.
IKAR is continually dogged by a criticism that Brous and Balaban control both broad vision and minute details.
“There is nobody else in the community who eats, sleeps and breathes IKAR the way the rabbi and I do,” Balaban said. “In some ways, it’s too much — this is our community, our professional and personal and religious and spiritual life.”
But Balaban says input and participation from active lay leaders has always been both invited and encouraged, and, perhaps most importantly, considered integral to IKAR’s mission. Brous said any inner circle that may exist is one that is open and fluid, and there is always room for people who want to be active and have influence.
“Everything here is designed to be a reflection of IKAR’s vision, so that extends to the e-mail we put out and the way we greet people on Shabbat, and the way we break fast on Yom Kippur. All of those things have to have the spirit and vision of IKAR, so I’m a part of all those decisions. But I don’t have to win every battle,” Brous said.
Brous regularly works 14- to 18-hour days, with back-to-back meetings with lay leaders, professional staff, volunteers, people who need counseling, and activists outside of IKAR and outside the Jewish community with whom she is building coalitions.
She hears from members who expect a higher level of personal attention, and others who worry she is spreading herself too thin.
“Strong communities are built around strong personalities. The problem is it puts a good deal of stress on her as a human being,” said Rabbi Ed Feinstein of Valley Beth Shalom, who reached out to Brous as a friend and mentor. “She needs the support of a community to be that strong personality. It’s hard for a person to do it alone, even a person as gifted as she is.”
As IKAR grows, Balaban and Brous say they have consciously taken steps back and made more room for broader lay and professional control. More staff has been hired in the last several years, and this year, for the first time, IKAR hired a full-time rabbinic fellow in addition to a rabbinic intern.
The lay structure also has been revamped. Initially, the board was made up of founders and early members, and it saw to both the fiduciary and programming needs of IKAR. Now, the board is more focused on development and responsible operations, with a newly structured Leadership Council of about 30 active volunteers and committee chairs gathering to brainstorm and coordinate activities.
“People feel themselves to be stakeholders in something larger than themselves,” said David Myers, professor of history at UCLA and a founding member. “They feel guided by an inspiring leader, but they feel they, themselves, are full participants in the work of this community.”
The Politics of Social Justice
Brous points to Minyan Tzedek, IKAR’s new social justice structure, as a good example of lay leaders taking control of an issue that is central to IKAR’s mission.
Minyan Tzedek was created based on input from the entire congregation, who explored at 32 house parties their visions for fixing a broken world. Launched on Rosh Hashanah 2009, Minyan Tzedek asked every member of IKAR to sign up for a significant project.
“The impulse behind Minyan Tzedek was to move beyond an articulation of an ethos of social justice and actually provide pathways for people to engage,” Brous said.
One recent program to come out of Minyan Tzedek’s advocacy track was an immigration reform rally earlier this month that brought together 500 people from churches and synagogues around the city.
But immigration reform isn’t a topic that everyone at IKAR agrees on, and Brous and rally organizers have had an ongoing dialogue with them.
“I think it is impossible to separate out the spiritual and the political. Our work as spiritual beings is to engage in the political world in a responsible way,” Brous said. “There are people who agree or disagree [around specific issues], but I hope they understand why it is so crucial that spiritual and moral leaders attack the issues of the day through the lens of Torah, deeply informed by Torah.”
IKAR members are somewhat self-selecting as liberals, and Brous admits that there are few Republicans in the congregations (her father, a member, is one). But she doesn’t acquiesce to accusations that IKAR fosters group-think.
On Israel, for instance, she says she has members across the spectrum, from staunch hawks to people who had friends on the flotilla that tried to penetrate the Gaza blockade in May. She recently created an Israel advisory group that includes diverse views on Israel.
Brous is grateful that she has more freedom than if she were in a well-established congregation, where institutional tradition and politics might tie her hands.
To be sure, rabbis for decades have been taking strong political stances on everything from civil rights to environmentalism to Israel — notably rabbis like Los Angeles’ Leonard Beerman, Steven Jacobs, Laura Geller and Harold Schulweis. Wilshire Boulevard Temple, Leo Baeck Temple and Stephen S. Wise are all strong social justice advocates.
But Brous sees too much timidity among much of today’s rabbinate.
“I often speak with rabbis from around the country who are frustrated and fed up and feel stuck because they can’t daven in their own shuls, they can’t speak their conscience, they can’t take risks,” Brous said. “Fear has become a driving force in the Jewish community. If we get too far ahead of the people, we’ll lose our jobs. So instead we stagnate.”
Brous often collaborates with other synagogues, and has forged strong relationships with many local rabbis. But the level of regard she’s gotten has raised the question about others who are doing groundbreaking work without the same level of accolade from the outside.
Feinstein says he would like to see a more symbiotic working relationship between experimental communities like IKAR and established institutions.
“My sadness is that there is not a better way to connect IKAR or experiments like IKAR with ongoing congregational life,” Feinstein said. “I would love to see big synagogues sponsor experiments like IKAR and support them, instead of feeling like there is a rivalry.”
Explosive Growth Tapering Off
Diversity, at least demographically speaking, has been somewhat of a challenge for IKAR.
Nearly 90 percent of IKAR’s members are under 50, and about half of those are under 30.
Growth was explosive in the first few years, with about 100 new members joining each year as word spread through entire social networks. But since 2008, the number of paid members has tapered off to a more natural pattern of about 10 percent growth per year.
Membership could be significantly affected by IKAR’s new preschool, set to open in September on Pico Boulevard near Fairfax Avenue. IKAR has raised about $40,000 of the needed $180,000 for the school. A portion of that money will go toward building a sister school in Africa, and IKAR hopes to forge a meaningful relationship between the two schools.
IKAR will celebrate 20 b’nai mitzvah between now and the end of 2011, more than it has had in its total existence. Limudim, IKAR’s religious school, has grown from 20 kids once a week to 60 kids twice a week, including Shabbat morning.
Adult education also plays a significant role. Last year, the congregation piloted its IKAR of Judaism program, where rabbis from other institutions joined Brous in teaching a 28-session introduction to Judaism course.
Funding the Dream
The full roster of programs requires funding, and money has always been the biggest challenge, Balaban said.
Membership dues are somewhat lower than at most other synagogues — from $260 for young singles up to $1,650 for a family, with financial aid available. IKAR has a large percentage of regulars who are not members.
IKAR tries to insert its essence even into fundraising. The Isaiah Initiative, for instance, is a roughly $30,000 annual fund that feeds money into the operating budget. The money is locked up and can only be released when members log in social justice hours.
Such creative development models are on the minds of a new cadre of business people who are now on the board of IKAR, working to establish a more solid donor base and fundraising calendar.
Lynn Harris, executive vice president of feature productions at Warner Bros., joined the board this year, along with others with strong business backgrounds.
“We’re less scared about seeing the community grow,” said Harris. “I believe the essence of what makes IKAR IKAR is so firmly embedded in the fabric of the community that it can never be undone by size.”
IKAR has done well with grants, but its high profile has been somewhat of a hindrance to fundraising.
“We get a lot of press and a lot of attention, and I think there is a sense that money just materializes,” Balaban said. “But it’s really very stressful, and we have to make decisions all the time about things we’re not going to do because of money.”
And while from the outside the infrastructure may appear to be getting more solid, in many ways, IKAR still thinks of itself as a scrappy startup, operating out of a few tiny offices and a rented auditorium at the WJCC.
The question of whether IKAR will get its own space looms large. The organization has had several false starts with buildings, and for now it is not actively working on changing the status quo. But in the long term, Brous is hoping to set up a more long-lasting and mutual arrangement with the WJCC, which last year completed the first phase of a renovation plan and is now raising money for a second phase. Brous and WJCC leaders are in informal talks about developing a collaborative plan.
“We see what IKAR does as fitting into our mission and who we are,” said WJCC Executive Director Brian Greene.
Of course, that kind of work will push IKAR closer to being a synagogue. But Brous isn’t worried.
“What I found is that somehow concretizing our spiritual vision has only enhanced and strengthened it; it didn’t diminish it,” she said.
For now, she is eager to hone what she has already built, and to spread the model — part of the initial vision of IKAR that now Brous feels ready to fully take on.
“We wanted to build a diverse, dynamic group of Jews on the ground who would come together in a community of healing and challenge. But we also wanted to energize the broader Jewish community and catalyze a conversation — beyond IKAR and beyond Los Angeles — about what is possible, what it means to be a Jew and human being in the world, what prayer could look like.
We set out to ask questions about what, fundamentally,the Jewish community can and ought to look like in the 21st century.”
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