Rabbi Sharon Brous wins $100,000 award for ‘Inspired Leadership’

Since Sharon Brous, 34, founded her alternative synagogue four years ago, IKAR‘s young rabbi has frequently been identified as an innovative spiritual leader, someone successful at engaging disaffected younger Jews by marrying Torah learning with progressive social action.

Brous has been named to the Forward 50 three times, and last spring Newsweek ranked her ninth of the 25 most influential pulpit rabbis in the country and one of only eight to be included on their 50 Most Influential Rabbis in America list. Jay Sanderson, CEO of JTN Productions and one of three judges for the top-rabbi list, called her “a rock star among young rabbis.”

Add one more to Brous’ accolades: On Thursday, the Jewish Community Foundation (JCF) was expected to announce that she is the first recipient of its Inspired Leadership Award, which comes with a gift of $100,000.

“This award is great reinforcement that to reach disaffected Jews we need to try risky, innovative, creative paths that haven’t been tried before,” Brous said.

In selecting her, the foundation, which was looking for an honoree on the “upward arc of their career,” acknowledged the importance of encouraging next-gen American Jews to find meaning in Jewish life and the need to find alternate channels for creating that connection.

“What she is doing is transformative,” said Marvin I. Schotland, the foundation’s president and CEO. “She is doing work that is to the benefit of the entire Jewish community, and she is looking for ways to bring others in who are doing this kind of work.

“If you think about [Rabbi] Harold Schulweis and the work he has done over all these years in Los Angeles, the center of his work has always been Valley Beth Shalom, but it has always been about the broader Jewish community,” Schotland said. “She is a younger version of a David Wolpe [at Sinai Temple]; she is a younger version of Harold Schulweis; and her work will, like theirs, go far beyond the impact on her congregation.”

Few Jewish leaders have been fortunate enough to stand up favorably to such lofty comparisons. But Schotland said that is what makes Brous so special.

The Inspired Leadership Award — a spinoff from JCF’s Cutting Edge Grants, which reward local programs offering innovative approaches to communal and societal problems — was not something a rabbi could apply to win. During the process of selection, Brous, like the other 14 candidates nominated by a search committee, didn’t even know she was in the running for an award. Nominees were from “all aspects of the Jewish community,” JCF chair Cathy Siegel Weiss said. Brous was the unanimous choice.

“Sharon is essentially the chief scientist in this fascinating laboratory that is Los Angeles,” said David Myers, director of UCLA’s Center for Jewish Studies and a former IKAR board member; he was not involved with the foundation’s search. “It is a very rare thing for a rabbi to be able to move you both intellectually and spiritually. It’s usually neither, but on a good day it is one or the other. But Sharon belongs to that very small subset of people who can do both.”

Educated at Columbia University and Jewish Theological Seminary, Brous relocated to Los Angeles in 2002 and brought with her the vision for IKAR, one of a number of self-styled Jewish spiritual communities that are redefining what it means to be Jewishly engaged.

IKAR “projects authenticity and autonomy,” said Steven M. Cohen, a sociologist at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion who has studied the “new Jews.” “It is demanding without being judgmental. It prizes community while allowing for individuality.”

Often called “emergent” Judaism — a term borrowed from a similar worship-without-walls movement among Christians — these unique organizations usually share some common bonds, Cohen said. Among them: passion for Jewish living, an emphasis on community, appreciation of diversity and a calling to the larger world.

This vision gave birth to IKAR in spring 2004. Aware that many of her Jewish contemporaries — “some of the most creative voices in our community” — felt alienated from traditional Jewish life and were absent from communal conversation, Brous, who had herself felt removed from Judaism when she entered college, began pondering what could be done.

This led to a three-hour discussion at the home of Melissa Balaban. Brous shared with her host and four others her vision for a new Jewish community, one in which all Jews would feel comfortable and few would settle for a complacent existence.

“The idea was to be different than just a synagogue,” said Balaban, now IKAR’s executive director. “To have a community that davens together and learns together and has dreams of something bigger.”

Brous drafted a vision statement, which each of the meeting’s participants passed on to five people. They rented a small room and set up 25 chairs, hoping their concept would connect with at least a few.

“We didn’t know if anyone would come,” Brous said. “And 135 people showed up. It was just astounding.”

Since then, IKAR has grown to a community — they don’t use the words “synagogue” or “congregation” — of 370 individual members and families. On High Holy Days, they pack the gym at the Westside JCC, where IKAR also rents space for its offices and weekly services.

Plans for a permanent home are currently on hold. In December 2006, the Max Webb Family Foundation announced that it had purchased a $3 million plot on Pico Boulevard, near La Cienega Boulevard, with plans to build a 20,000-square-foot center for progressive Judaism that would house IKAR as well as the nonprofit Progressive Jewish Alliance (PJA). Construction had been projected to complete by early 2009, but talks broke down last year and show no sign of being revived. (Eric J. Diamond, who runs Webb’s development company, said last week that he had no comment on the breakdown.)

Brous brushed off the change in plans: “What makes IKAR is the soul of the community and isn’t about the physical space we are in. The heart and soul of the community is in people’s living rooms and at Shabbos meals and in bars and art galleries. It isn’t in a physical structure,” she said. “At the same time, I hope in the foreseeable future we are able to have our own permanent place.

This award from the Jewish Community Foundation cannot be used to shore up funds for a new worship site; it is intended to aid the expansion of Brous’ innovative practices at IKAR. Any use of the donor-advised fund, created in Brous’ name, will require approval of a small board, which will evaluate her plans.

Brous said she is considering several possibilities. She may use a portion of the funds to establish a tzedakah collective, in which others in the community would be asked to match the portion she contributed. Participants would be invited into a yearlong study of the laws of tzedakah to determine how the group wanted to distribute the pooled funds.

Another possibility is to use the money for IKAR’s Isaiah Initiative, a 2-year-old fund supported by members of the community that encourages them to participate in social justice. After money is donated, it remains restricted until a member participates in social action or advocacy — such as protesting outside the Chinese consulate, feeding the hungry, teaching reading at public schools. As people work for various forms of social change, that money is released to be used for IKAR’s general operating budget.

The goal, Brous said, will be to continue building the community that was so excited to see IKAR arrive: the disaffected and the disinterested. And the acknowledgement of her work by the organizational Jewish community, in this case JCF, has been welcome news to her fellow travelers in progressive and emergent Judaism.

“It is about time that the mainstream establishment in Los Angeles wake up to the wonderful things going on in Los Angeles Jewry that are not ‘establishment’ things,” said Daniel Sokatch, founder of the PJA and an IKAR board member, who in July became the new CEO of the Jewish Community Federation in San Francisco. “In California, which is one of the great Jewish communities in the world, there is recognition that it is time — certainly not for the mantle to be passed, but that it is time — for the community to include at its core some of the people who have been working at the margins.”