A Con­gre­ga­tion Grows in Brook­lyn

Forward Magazine - - CONTENTS - By Ari Feld­man ● Ari Feld­man is a staff writer at the For­ward. Fol­low him on Twit­ter, @ ae­feld­man

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 oŽshoots 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 stuŽ,” 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, œ”, and Abrams, œ’, 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 œ; 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 oŽ 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 o’er 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.


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