As Ikar Plans for a New Home, Can the Quirky Synagogue Retain its Edge?
The Los Angeles congregation Ikar likes to break the unspoken rules of American Judaism. It does not call itself Conservative, Orthodox or Reform. It doesn’t even call itself a synagogue, because it has no permanent home. It holds services — known for their drum circles and packs of roaming children— in rented auditoriums and classrooms.
Now, Ikar — whose name translates roughly as “essence” — is planning to defy another taboo: It recently announced that it will construct its own building, from scratch, on a piece of property in Los Angeles’s Midtown area, and it will get donors from coast to coast to help fund a building they don’t even go to.
“We don’t want to build another shul,” said Melissa Balaban, Ikar’s executive director. “We want to build a place for innovation.”
Ikar was founded by in 2004 in a Santa Monica, California, living room by Balaban and some two dozen other people, including Ikar’s current senior rabbi, Sharon Brous, who was ordained at the Conservative movement’s flagship Jewish Theological Seminary. Until recently, the synagogue’s board was loosely structured with overlapping responsibilities and self-imposed term limits — a sharp contrast to the administrative focus of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism.
Buoyed by Brous’s growing national profile, Ikar has an outsize influence for its size. It has only 640 households but it enjoys the name recognition of much bigger institutions, like Central Synagogue, in New York, and Sinai Temple, in Los Angeles. That still makes it one of the largest unaffiliated synagogues in the country, according to Steven M. Cohen, a professor of Jewish social policy at New York’s Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. With a new building, Ikar is looking to further establish its place in the “wider Jewish conversation,” Balaban said.
“Can they continue to be an upstart if they have a building?” said Michael
Rabbi Sharon Brous (left) with congregants at a 2016 retreat.
Berenbaum, a development consultant for museums and a professor of Jewish studies at the American Jewish University, in Los Angeles. “[A]re you the same radical when you have a mortgage? It will be interesting to find out.”
Ikar has said that it has been looking for a building “since pretty close to Day One.” But the search did not begin in earnest until 2012, when Ikar found a major donor to begin a capital campaign for a new building and raised “seed” funding of about $500,000.
The community received an extra push in the form of the so-called “Trump bump ” in attendance at synagogues. Matt Weintraub, Ikar’s associate executive director, credited the election with providing some fuel to