December 10, 2018

How Different Is IKAR; Rabbi Sharon Brous Inspires Change … and Controversy

Rabbi Sharon Brous never wanted to build a synagogue.

Six years ago, when Brous met in a Santa Monica living room with a few families looking for a change in their Jewish life, she gave them a word of warning as they built up a frenzy of excitement about their mutual dream for a spiritually driven, morally active community.

“I told them that I was not interested in creating another synagogue or minyan — Los Angeles already has many great ones. What I wanted to do was create a new model of Jewish community — one that would challenge assumptions and push boundaries, one that would help us reimagine what Jewish life and Jewish practice could look like,” Brous said.

“I told them that if it turns out in five or 10 years that we’ve built a lovely synagogue, I’m going to find us a great young rabbi to take over, and I’m going to medical school and I’ll work for Doctors Without Borders, because that is not what I want to build,” she said.

That meeting turned out to be the founding of IKAR (Hebrew for “essence”), a community that meets every Shabbat at the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) and has grown to 400 member units. Within its first year, IKAR had earned a national reputation for tapping into a rich vein of Jewish life, attracting everyone from the unaffiliated to lifelong super-Jews.

The fact that Brous is willing to announce to a synagogue-centered Jewish world that she wants to be something different — something better — is emblematic of the earnest chutzpah that has earned her almost cultlike allegiance from admirers, a flurry of national recognition and a mixed reaction from some congregational leaders, who complain of the amount of attention heaped on IKAR.

“The idea was to create an opportunity for Jews to engage in traditional Jewish ritual and practice, while also learning and doing social justice work together in a community.  I wanted to speak to their hearts and minds, to call for an integration of the spiritual, social, political and emotional self,” Brous said. And while IKAR didn’t target a specific population, “We wanted to realize this Jewish vision in a voice and with a vibe that would resonate with people who might find themselves outside the fold of conventional Jewish life.”

Today, IKAR’s success has brought it to a crossroads, nudging it closer to the world of institutional structure it initially associated with stagnation and emptiness.

IKAR now has a budget of $1.1 million, eight full-time staff members and three part-timers, in addition to about a dozen teachers for a religious school program with 60 students. Friday night services attract about 200 people, and the High Holy Days brought in 1,500 last year. Next year, IKAR will open an early childhood center and start a post-b’nai mitzvah teen program.

“I think that, in any organization, this kind of growth is the biggest challenge. We don’t want to lose the sanctity of our Shabbat service, or the level of connection among community members, or the overwhelming participation in the songs and the dancing that goes on,” said Fred Kramer, chairman of IKAR’s board. “We want to figure out what the best way is to continue to grow the community without losing the really unique environment.”

Brous is excited about the growth, and she believes that with the infrastructure solidifying, IKAR is well poised not only to continue honing its model, but to turn outward.

“I have heard from so many people — especially young and unaffiliated — that they gave up on Jewish life altogether because they found it spiritually empty, intellectually dishonest, morally inconsistent and socially unstimulating,” Brous said.  “IKAR is part of a national trend toward revitalization of Jewish engagement and Jewish life. … The Jewish community looks different today than it did six years ago when we started. I know IKAR is not alone in this, but we are a significant part of the trend, and I am gratified and humbled by that.”

This week, IKAR is hosting a conference, “Live, Pray, Learn,” where 55 lay and rabbinic leaders from around the country are gathering to explore how to create more dynamic and meaningful prayer experiences. Brous’ mentor, Rabbi Roly Matalon of B’nai Jeshurun in New York, as well as local rabbis, will join IKAR leadership to teach sessions that include “Texts That Make Your Hands Shake,” “How Traditional Liturgy Can Break Your Heart Open” and sessions on obstacles in prayer and building a spiritual team. Attendees will experience an IKAR Shabbat, along with text study, hiking and yoga.

The conference was born out of the dozens and dozens of phone calls Brous says she gets from Jewish leaders around the country asking one big question: What has IKAR done so right?

An All-Star Rabbi

IKAR is not alone in inspiring members with creative spirituality and a focus on bettering the world.

In fact, synagogue experts say Los Angeles is at the vanguard of a national trend in creating inventive worship opportunities that appeal to Jews who were done with, or never got into, Jewish life.

The soulful services of Rabbi Naomi Levy’s independent Nashuva Minyan, the hip scene at Sinai Temple’s Friday Night Live, The Happy Minyan and Ohr HaTorah’s alternative vibes, Valley Beth Shalom and Temple Isaiah’s efficacy in community building and social justice, Valley Outreach Synagogue’s model of small subcommunities, Shtibl Minyan’s do-it-yourself model, B’nai David’s work with the homeless and Temple Israel of Hollywood’s pivotal role in Big Sunday — all are part of a national trend of spiritual innovation leading to changes in how one relates to the world.