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