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Rabbi Sharon Brous on her New Book, Oct. 7 and IKAR’s Future

”There are a lot of stories of love and loss, drawing on all I’ve learned pastoring to this beautiful community over the past 20 years.”
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January 25, 2024

“It’s a hard time for this book to come into the world,” Rabbi Sharon Brous said.

She was discussing her recently published debut book, “The Amen Effect: Ancient Wisdom to Mend Our Broken Hearts and World.” When she set out to the write the nonfiction work, she did not anticipate the events of Oct. 7, when Hamas attacked southern Israel in an unprecedented assault, significantly altering the Jewish community and beyond.

“It’s a time when a lot of people who would be open and receptive to the message are not interested in hearing from Jews. And it’s also a time in which I think the wisdom is more relevant and more necessary than it was when I wrote it.” 

So, “it’s a hard time” Brous said again, during a recent phone interview. “It’s a time when a lot of people who would be open and receptive to the message are not interested in hearing from Jews. And it’s also a time in which I think the wisdom is more relevant and more necessary than it was when I wrote it.”

Published on Jan. 9 by Avery, an imprint of Penguin Random House, “The Amen Effect” is, essentially, a guide for how to manage times of hardship and fully embrace moments of joy. The book unfolds over eight chapters, along with a section devoted to how to put the lessons of Jewish texts and Brous’ interpretation of them into daily practice. 

Brous named the book after a sermon she delivered approximately ten years ago at IKAR during the High Holy Days. She continued to give the talk at communities across the country and saw how much it resonated. Eventually, she realized she had the foundation for a book, though it was a while before she began writing. 

Her day job, meanwhile, continues to be serving as spiritual leader of IKAR. The mid city-based progressive egalitarian congregation began in 2004 as an experiment in worship. Over the past two decades, IKAR has become the rare synagogue success story. It has thrived by offering a spiritual home to those who care equally about citywide efforts to support the unhoused as they do about davening mincha or ma’ariv. 

While Brous’ new book charts her two-decade journey as the community’s founding senior rabbi, “The Amen Effect” is not a memoir. Nor is it, Brous says, a “grief book,” though Brous shares several experiences of serving congregants during the most vulnerable and challenging moments of their lives — at shivas, in hospital rooms, at gravesides. In fact, the book’s cover art features a torn garment, a nod to the ritual performed during mourning. 

Incorporating the rabbinic literature of the Mishnah, Brous’ book argues the greatest gift we can offer someone we care about is simply showing up for them — an idea illustrated by the recitation of the Mourner’s Kaddish: The mourner publicly recites the ancient prayer, and a community indicates its support by responding, “Amen.” Whether one understands the literal translation of the prayer’s obscure Aramaic ultimately matters little. 

“What matters,” Brous writes in an early chapter, “is that a brokenhearted person stands up in a prayer service and reveals his grief, out loud and in public, and the community responds with love and presence.” 

Throughout her rabbinate, the rabbi-author has occasionally stirred controversy by expressing  politically progressive views in her sermons. A few years ago, addressing hundreds of worshippers at her communi-ty’s High Holy Day services, she made a Jewish case for reparations for slavery. Ad-ditionally, when speaking about Israel, she frequently calls for empathy for the Pales-tinians while offering criticism of Israel’s right-wing leadership. During the Trump administration, she opined about the threat of white supremacists and the undermining of American democracy.

But after Oct. 7, she, like many others on the political left, was taken aback by the responses of those who were silent in the face of Hamas’ atrocities against Israel. She reiterated that concern during her interview with the Journal. 

“I have been very vocal about rejecting the narrative that the victims of rape and abduction and murder are responsible for the horrific atrocities that were committed against them,” Brous said. “I also understand that there is a mass movement of young Jews right now who feel brokenhearted over this war and over the deepening entrenchment in an impossible status quo.”

Emphasizing her point about the unacceptability of placing blame on Israel, Brous spoke of Vivian Silver, a Canadian Israeli peace activist murdered on Oct. 7 at her home in Kibbutz Be’eri. 

“The concept that Vivian is responsible, by virtue of being an Israeli Jew, for the atrocities against her is immoral and something that I cannot, and could not, stand for,” Brous said.  

Written before Oct. 7, the book is concerned with matters of faith and heart facing people in their everyday lives. Brous offers insights, for example, gleaned from encounters with congregants who lost their two children — ages 14 and 17 — in a horrific car accident. To another congregant, who recently lost his father, she attempts to explain the helpful role the Jewish liturgy can play in the grieving process. Then there’s an individual who’s suffering from embarrassment due to a recent job loss and is retreating from the community. 

Along the way, leaders at IKAR, including longtime executive director Melissa Balaban, Brous’ colleagues in the rabbinate, and her family lift her up, making it possible for her to serve as a caregiver to others. In many ways, Brous said, “The Amen Effect” is for them.

“I’m really excited to get the book out,” she said. “It’s kind of a love-letter to our [IKAR] community. There are a lot of stories of love and loss, drawing on all I’ve learned pastoring to this beautiful community over the past 20 years.”

Indeed, as IKAR enters its 20th year, its founding rabbi expressed excitement about all that’s ahead for the congregation, including transforming parts of a recently acquired property on La Cienega Boulevard into 60 units of supportive housing for the city’s unhoused population. 

“We’re excited about developing something that’ll be helpful for the city of Los Angeles,” Brous said.

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