Getting to the IKAR about Rabbi Sharon Brous


Here’s what I wrote about Rabbi Sharon Brous back in 2004, for that year’s Forward 50 list:

If Conservative Judaism ever reclaims its status as the country’s largest Jewish denomination, it will be in large part thanks to the work of rabbis like Sharon Brous. A native of New Jersey transplanted to Southern California, Brous, 30, is one of the most dynamic religious leaders to be ordained in recent years by the Jewish Theological Seminary. She is currently at work building Ikar, a new, vibrant Los Angeles congregation that seeks to serve as a meeting place for religiously observant non-Orthodox Jews and Jews who have long been alienated from synagogue life. In part, the new community can be seen as an extension of her two years working at Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, the Manhattan synagogue known as B.J. and that boasts an innovative mix of music and social action. Brous’s congregation, however, offers a more traditional style of worship (no electric instruments, for example) and greater emphasis on text study. While she is a loyal heir to the Conservative movement’s commitment to an evolving canon of rabbinic law, she combines this traditionalism with a truly progressive sense that Judaism’s purpose is to inspire its followers to create a better world for all humanity. The word Conservative does not appear on the Ikar Web site, but the congregation represents a compelling model for helping to reinvigorate a proud, but sluggish and shrinking, synagogue movement.

It’s nice to know that I actually manage to get something right once in a while.

This week, in a profile of Brous, the L.A. Jewish Journal reports:

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. …

Brous has made multiple appearances in the “Forward 50,” which identifies influential national Jewish leaders; in Newsweek’s lists of top rabbis; and in Slingshot’s roster of hot Jewish organizations. In 2008, she received the Jewish Community Foundation’s first Inspired Leadership Award, which came with a $100,000 grant. A few weeks ago, she was invited to the White House for Jewish Heritage Month.

One of the interesting features of IKAR’s success is that it continues to manage a mix of progressivism and traditionalism:

The prayers are in Hebrew — IKAR uses a Conservative prayer book and doesn’t skip anything.

On a recent Saturday morning, the language didn’t seem to be a barrier to full participation in the singing, brought to life by percussion accompaniment — Jewish law prohibits musical instruments, and Brous believes that instruments inhibit spontaneity and create the feel of performance.

When it came time for the Shema, Brous asked congregants to recite the six-word prayer as a meditation, with each word exhaled in a single, elongated breath. Then, she asked congregants to pick only one of the words of the prayer to speak to them at that moment, whether it be Listen, or God, or One. Each individual recited only that word aloud, producing a collective Shema.

It’s a positive profile, but hardly a puff piece, tackling a range of criticisms and challenges facing Brous and her community, in addition to highlighting the many accomplishments. It’s worth reading the full article (for starters, you don’t want to miss the good stuff about the congregation’s musical guru, Hillel Tigay).

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