HomeJanuary 2014Engaging the Disengaged

Engaging the Disengaged

More than 200 people attended the Community Scholar Program on Sunday, November 10, at Congregation B’nai Israel, to hear Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR in Los Angeles tell of her path to becoming a rabbi and her innovative approach as the founding member of one of the fastest growing congregations in the country.   She quickly showed why her name seems to come up everywhere.
While Brous had been raised Jewish, she found many congregations alienating and difficult to connect with, and at eighteen she rejected Judaism.  But a Shabbat at her boy friend’s home rekindled her love for the beauty and warmth of her inherited tradition.  So, during her years at Columbia University in New York, Brous began to search for a congregation that would resonate with her.  It was only when she attended services at B’nai Jeshrun in Manhattan, a nonaffiliated Jewish synagogue community whose services are “joyful, musical, socially progressive and accessible, and weave together tradition with contemporary life,” that it all clicked.  And while on a visit to Israel, she decided to pursue Judaism and ultimately become a rabbi.
Brous received a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, was ordained in 2001 from the Jewish Theological Seminary and then served as a rabbinic fellow at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun in NYC.
After moving to Los Angeles, Brous met a number of articulate and talented Jews who were totally disconnected from Judaism.  She began to realize that it wasn’t Judaism, but perhaps “the container” in which Judaism was practiced.  It was something she understood very well.  Though Brous was drawn to those already invested in Jewish life, she was particularly interested in those who were deeply disaffected.  She wanted to make Jewish learning, ritual and community compelling and meaningful even for those alienated by conventional religious expression.  And so, in 2004 Brous, and a handful of young, entrepreneurial Jews set out to create IKAR.
IKAR is a progressive, egalitarian Jewish community, “driven by a passionate belief in the relevance of the Jewish tradition and its power to infuse our lives with meaning and purpose.  (Its) mission is to reclaim the essence (the ikar) of Judaism and to re-imagine what it means to be Jewish in the world today.”
It is an innovative model for Jewish engagement.  The goal is to reclaim the vitality and relevance of Jewish religious practice and “re-imagine the contours of Jewish community.”  IKAR has been recognized nationally for its success in engaging young and disaffected Jews, and is seen as a positive and proactive response to the declining trend in affiliation in the Jewish community.  Since its founding, IKAR has grown from a handful of people to a community of more than 500 member households.
Among her many recognitions and accomplishments as a rabbi, this year Brous was recognized as the most influential rabbi in the United States by Newsweek and The Daily Beast, and as one of the Forward’s 50 most influential American Jews.  Also this year, she blessed the president and vice president at the Inaugural National Prayer Service.  Brous serves on the board of Teruah-The Rabbinic Call to Human Rights and is a rabbinic advisor to American Jewish World Service and Bend the Arc.  She received the Lives of Commitment Award from Auburn Theological Seminary, was a JWI Woman to Watch and was the inaugural recipient of the Inspired Leadership Award from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles.
“Many young people have an institutional allergy,” commented Brous.  “It doesn’t matter how beautiful the sanctuary or how lovely the social hall.  My loyalty is not to the architectural, but to the substance of Judaism without the intuitional.”
Brous asked the rhetorical question, “How do congregations message?  When people come through the door, is there a large poster reminding folks about a campaign; a security door; a sign-up notice for religious school?  What are the initial messages one receives?  When one enters IKAR, one finds really good coffee that one can take into services.”
According to Brous, “People are much more willing to participate on Shabbat morning when they have their cups of coffee.  And perhaps one of the most affecting messages is a sign that reads ‘Discomfort is better than boredom.’”  That lets you know that you are in for something very different.
A.J. Heschel wrote, “The synagogue is the graveyard where Judaism is buried.”  Brous and her prayer team make every effort to “change it up” and “break set.”
“Prayer is a dialogue, about human beings connecting with human beings and ultimately with God,” said Brous.  “And to do that people must be present in the moment and not be lulled into a state of mechanical prayer.  If you give a Jew a chair, that Jew will sit down; if you take that chair way, that Jew will daven.”
Brous believes that a focus on replication is the wrong focus; rather, there needs to be a focus on amplification and reverberation – a spiritual vitality in a spiritual environment.  We tend to turn more inward than outward even though today we have more information about our world with all kinds of details and its catastrophes.  Yet we tend to close ourselves off to manage our own lives.  A big part of Judaism is being part of humanity and the Jewish people.
“The sense of community is very important” said Brous, “as well as, creating a space where people feel a responsibility for each other.”
IKAR holds Shabbat Services every Saturday morning at 9:15 a.m. and the first and third Friday night of every month at the Westside JCC.
To those who explain their lack of commitment to Judaism by saying, “I love humanity.  I’m a universalist!  Judaism is too particular,” Brous says, “It’s easy to ‘love’ everyone but much harder to ‘love’ someone.  And for Jews, Judaism is the best way to be a meaningful part of the world.”  There is one more question she asks of those who might doubt Judaism’s relevance, “What’s wrong with saying ‘Thank you’ in the morning, and ‘I forgive you’ at night?”
“To be Jewish today is to be animated by both gratitude and unrest, by humility and audacity,” said Brous. “It is to recognize the utter magnificence of the world, the miracle of human life and human connection, the possibility of love and the abundance of life’s blessings.  And it is, at the same time, to feel the exodus from Egypt – the journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity – in our guts.  It is to refuse to accept a world saturated with injustice, oppression and human suffering, and to become agents of social change whose fiercest weapons are love, faith and holy chutzpah.”

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