IKAR gets $3 million to support national rabbinic fellowships


The Jim Joseph Foundation has granted more than $3 million to IKAR for a rabbinic fellowship program that will involve a national coalition of seven spiritual communities known as the Jewish Emergent Network.

The fellowships will target rabbis early in their careers, mentoring them to be community builders who can bring Jews in underserved populations closer to their heritage. 

“We want to contribute to the reanimation of American-Jewish life and we believe that strengthening leadership is one of the best ways to do that,” said Rabbi Sharon Brous, founding rabbi of IKAR. 

The network will launch its program in June by sending one rabbinic fellow to each participating community for two years. Then, in 2018, a new group of fellows will be dispatched. Participants, along with IKAR, include Romemu and Lab/Shul in New York, Sixth & I in Washington, D.C., Chicago’s Mishkan, The Kitchen in San Francisco and Seattle’s Kavana.

The total cost of the program over four years — including pay for the rabbinic fellows and a project manager — is expected to be more than $6 million, according to Melissa Balaban, executive director and founding president of IKAR. That means the Jim Joseph Foundation grant of about $3.2 will cover more than half of it; the network has to raise the rest by reaching out to other organizations. (The Chicago-based Crown family has contributed $400,000 to the effort as well.) 

Brous said this program is important because of the dwindling participation in Jewish life among some of the Jewish population. 

“Over the course of the past decade in the American-Jewish community is the trend of diminishing affiliation in non-Orthodox circles,” she said. “There is a lack of engagement and affiliation, particularly among young people.”

Brous referred to the 2013 Pew Research Center study that found that 22 percent of Jews in the United States describe themselves as having no religion. 

“At the same time, there is a burst of innovation and a renewed interest that has emerged in a number of small pockets around the country,” she said. 

The participating synagogues of Jewish Emergent Network each offer unique approaches to community involvement and Jewish life. Romemu is an egalitarian shul in New York City that practices yoga alongside prayer. Kavana in Seattle promotes farming and community-supported agriculture, which supplies customers with organic produce from local farms. 

IKAR itself encourages members to volunteer by feeding the homeless and hosts monthly house parties that highlight spiritual practices such as kashrut and tzedakah. The synagogue, which was established in 2004, serves more than 570 member households and hosts Shabbat services at Shalhevet High School.

Over the new program’s four years, the two sets of rabbinic fellows will work in their congregations, and then meet once every six weeks at one of the institutions.

“After two years, they will not only have the experience of a deep immersion in one of the seven communities, but they will also have real exposure to all seven communities,” Brous said. 

Dawne Bear Novicoff, assistant director at the Jim Joseph Foundation, said it awarded the grant to the network because the program will ultimately help connect young people to Judaism. 

“Our interest is in finding and investing in opportunities that will encourage young Jews to live dynamic Jewish lives,” she said. “Folks in their 30s and young families are finding it hard to identify ways to engage in opportunities around their Judaism. We see this as a way to help cultivate that field and develop further opportunities for engagement.” 

According to Bear Novicoff, the grant will be doled out throughout the four years of the program’s lifespan. “It’ll taper from Year 1 to Year 4,” she said. “There is still funding to be raised in each of the four years by the network and by the individual communities on their own.” 

The idea for the Jewish Emergent Network was originally inspired by Brous’ own time as a rabbinic fellow at B’nai Jeshurun in New York City. She said the opportunity transformed her. “I’m not sure I would have started IKAR without that experience,” she said. 

Now she’s excited about the opportunity to help others have the same experience.

“On the basis of my personal fellowship in New York and the IKAR program, we feel really confident that it’s a profound way to have an impact in the Jewish community and that intensive mentoring can change the trajectory of the rabbinate. That’s why we feel so excited about this funding and the opportunity to have that impact.”