A Congregation Grows in Brooklyn
Even in Brooklyn, there are wandering Jews.
That’s how Marcella Kanfer Rolnick and Amy Abrams saw themselves in
. As parents of students at the same Jewish school, the two women bonded over their shared longing for a spiritual home.
“I felt like here I was, telling my kids, ‘Go to a Jewish school; yes, we have Shabbat dinner; yes, we go to Israel,’ but there was no time besides the High Holidays where my kids saw me really doing Jewish things,” Abrams said. “It was like do as I say, not as I do.”
Kanfer Rolnick and Abrams, who are also entrepreneurs, began thinking about trying to build their own community. This year — after many iterations and much trial and error — they held High Holidays for the first time, as the sister congregation of Romemu, a Manhattan congregation.
“We had this enterprising spirit: If you can’t find it, build it,” Abrams said. “Which I think is very Jewish.”
Judaism’s long history is full of DIY congregations. Various oshoots have found American soil particularly fertile. Reform Judaism has flourished here for almost years; the havurah, or fellowship movement, created new congregations influenced by s counterculture; the s saw the birth of the lay-led independent minyan movement. And some congregations have grown in the past years around particular rabbis, like Sharon Brous and Ikar, in Los Angeles, and Romemu’s leader, Rabbi David Ingber.
Such communities “bring new leadership forward, and it gives them a chance to try their stu,” said Lawrence Kushner, a retired Reform rabbi and author of “I’m God, You’re Not: Observations on Organized Religion & Other Disguises of the Ego.” “That’s got to be good for the Jews.”
When Kanfer Rolnick, , and Abrams, , started out, they focused on building a network of young Jewish families in Brooklyn’s Brownstone Belt. Though born and raised in the Midwest, both had also developed deep Rolodexes of Jewish New York.
Kanfer Rolnick is the executive chair of GOJO Industries, which was founded by her great-uncle and great-aunt. Abrams is the co-founder of Artists & Fleas, a multi-retailer marketplace for upscale clothing, jewelry, home goods and beauty products.
The two women called their latest venture Brooklyn Havurah and launched it with a $ , grant from Kanfer Rolnick’s family foundation, Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah. Kanfer Rolnick is the chair of the foundation’s board.
“It was an independent board decision, but I was able to make a strong appeal to the board,” Kanfer Rolnick said of the grant.
In £, Abrams and Kanfer Rolnick approached Sarah Luria, a recently ordained Reform rabbi, to be the community’s first spiritual leader.
“It was like coming together on Friday night and singing songs, and learning together, and breaking bread and having dinner with our families,” Luria said of the community’s first meetings.
Luria left the community amicably in February ; she was not in agreement with the amount of prayer that Kanfer Rolnick and Abrams were interested in including in the Jewish gatherings she presided over. After that, Kanfer Rolnick and Abrams began inviting well-known spiritual and song leaders to experiment with how they wanted Brooklyn Havurah to feel: Rabbi Amichai Lau-Lavie of Lab/Shul; the musicians Neshama Carlebach and Naomi Less. and Rabbi Zach Fredman of the New Shul.
In March , Kanfer Rolnick was talking with Ingber, founder of Romemu, a community based on Jewish Renewal, a style of Judaism that was founded by the late rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi and incorporates meditation and music.
“They seemed to be creating a movement that’s grounded in Renewal, but it is really bringing musicality and vibrancy to Jewish practice,” Kanfer Rolnick said. “A lightbulb went o in my head,
‘It is bringing musicality and vibrancy to Jewish practice.’
and I said [to Ingber]: ‘Growth? I know where you could grow.’”
In the spring of , Kanfer Rolnick brought Ingber and about members of her Brooklyn circle to her apartment for a meeting. Rolnick says the group ultimately decided that Romemu was a good fit for its community, and vice versa.
“I had a real strong sense of trust, that she had with me and that I placed in her, that Romemu Brooklyn would be an expression of what Romemu in Manhattan has been for the past decade,” Ingber said.
Romemu Brooklyn held its first services in March .
“In terms of its inclusiveness, its diversity, its music, it’s very much like the Upper West Side,” said Deborah Bernstein, a longtime Romemu member who recently moved to Brooklyn and now attends Romemu Brooklyn. “But it doesn’t yet have the power or the spiritual force, because Ingber provides that. I have no doubt that that will come in time.”
Kanfer Rolnick said that the new community is a testament to what she sees as the future of organized Judaism: a de-centralized network of synagogues that each oer a unique experience and don’t try to claim people as members.
She Romemu said that Brooklyn they’re as trying low-commitment to keep as possible.
“We’re in an era where people don’t have to choose,” she said. “They can go where they want to go. This is really about what the community is responding to.”
This year, Romemu Brooklyn attracted about people to its High Holiday services. Based on the strength of those figures, Kanfer Rolnick says Romemu Brooklyn plans to add one Shabbat morning service each month to its monthly Friday evening services. She said that the community is exploring how to grow, it’s unclear if they’ll hire a permanent rabbi, how they will pay for space and musicians, or how Romemu in Manhattan will share its clergy with the Brooklyn outpost. the Brooklyn outpost.
But for members like Bernstein, figuring out what the future holds is the whole appeal.
“You don’t get that many opportunities to influence the direction of where [a new community] is going to go,”
Bernstein said. “That’s a rare treat.”
FIRST BUT NOT LAST: Romemu Brooklyn held its first High Holiday services this year.