Fresh from California, a new kind of Judaism
WHEN JONATHAN Sacks published his book The Dignity of Difference, little could he have imagined that it would help inspire a dynamic new community in California led by a female rabbi.
Rabbi Sharon Brous launched Ikar in California with just four other people in 2004. Now it has some 600 affiliated households and welcomed 2,000 people to services over the last High Holy Days.
It is one of a new wave of independent congregations set up outside the established synagogue movements that are beginning to change the map of Jewish America.
Post-denominational, it combines social activism with spiritual openness and has been held up as a model for attracting young Jews who would have otherwise remained communally estranged. Rabbi Sharon Braus
When she first read Dignity in 2004, she was particularly struck by a passage in which the then British chief rabbi speculated on whether the world was heading for a new golden age of peace, prosperity and scientific advance by 2020 or a dystopia of increasing conflict and violent religious fundamentalism.
Wondering what kind of world her then six-month-old daughter would grow up in, she decided there was no use simplybemoaningthestateof affairsbut that she had to do something. By her own admission, RabbiBrous—whowasspeaking at her first British Limmud — came to the rabbinate as “an outsider”.
Although raised in a Progressive family with a strong Jewish identity, by the time she reached university and “encountered the established Jewish community, I realised how much I wasn’t part of it,” she said.
“I felt stunned and uncomfortable by my alienation from my own community.”
But, during a year in Israel, she “fell in love” with the Talmud, studying at the Hebrew University.
The future Rabbi Brous also came to the realisation that “the agents of social change in the world who I admired most were people like Martin Luther King and Gandhi and Mother Teresa and Abraham Joshua Heschel, people who had faith at the core of their activism.”
While she had always been an activist, she felt that she was “missing the link” between that and her Judaism. “The call to human dignity as a faith commitment was so strong, the call to justice and equality so profound for me, that I realised that Judaism… was where I needed to develop, to spend my time learning and ultimately using my voice.”
After graduating from the ConservativeJewishTheologyRabbinicSeminary, she said she “started meeting all these disconnected, unaffiliated, marginalised Jews who were a lot like me when I was on this journey years before.
“I associated with their struggle and sense of disconnect. I started to see how the institutional Jewish world and the Jewish communal establishment was really alienating for a lot of people who had a yearning for a purposeful life, for a spiritual practice, for a sense of community, for ritual, but were not looking in established Jewish spaces for fulfilment of those desires.
“And the more young people I spoke with, the more I realised that what they were rejecting was not Jewish ideas, practice, or even God, but they were rejecting Jewish institutional religion.”
The typical 20th-century American Jewish synagogue felt “remote and aloof” and its three-pronged agenda of “fighting antisemitism, fighting intermarriage and saving Israel” was not enough for many of the younger generation.
When she moved to Los Angeles, she found that “the smartest, most creative, most interesting young Jews I was meeting had all given up on Jewish life”.
They neither attended synagogue nor signed up to mainstream Jewish organisations.
So she set about trying to translate the ideals which inspired her in Judaism into a language that could resonate with them.NotonlyhasIkaritself grownbutit has helped to encourage others.
Another first-time speaker at UK Limmud, Rabbi Lizzie Heydemann, who founded a new community in Chicago, spent time at Ikar, as did British Rabbi Oliver Joseph, who has returned to work for Masorti here.
Rabbi Brous thinks that it is no accident that women have been at the forefront of some of the new independent communities.
Women rabbis, she says, by entering what is traditionally a “patriarchal business”, are breaking the mould.
And once they do that, “you start thinking in a creative way about all kinds of things”.