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