June 22, 2010
How different is IKAR?
Rabbi Sharon Brous Inspires Change ... and Controversy
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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.