Spreading the Model of IKAR

from The Jewish Journal:

How different is IKAR?

Rabbi Sharon Brous never wanted to build a synagogue.

Six years ago, when Brous met in a Santa Monica living room with a few families looking for a change in their Jewish life, she gave them a word of warning as they built up a frenzy of excitement about their mutual dream for a spiritually driven, morally active community.

“I told them that I was not interested in creating another synagogue or minyan – Los Angeles already has many great ones. What I wanted to do was create a new model of Jewish community – one that would challenge assumptions and push boundaries, one that would help us reimagine what Jewish life and Jewish practice could look like,” Brous said.

“I told them that if it turns out in five or 10 years that we’ve built a lovely synagogue, I’m going to find us a great young rabbi to take over, and I’m going to medical school and I’ll work for Doctors Without Borders, because that is not what I want to build,” she said.

That meeting turned out to be the founding of IKAR (Hebrew for “essence”), a community that meets every Shabbat at the Westside Jewish Community Center (WJCC) and has grown to 400 member units. Within its first year, IKAR had earned a national reputation for tapping into a rich vein of Jewish life, attracting everyone from the unaffiliated to lifelong super-Jews.

The fact that Brous is willing to announce to a synagogue-centered Jewish world that she wants to be something different – something better – is emblematic of the earnest chutzpah that has earned her almost cultlike allegiance from admirers, a flurry of national recognition and a mixed reaction from some congregational leaders, who complain of the amount of attention heaped on IKAR.

“The idea was to create an opportunity for Jews to engage in traditional Jewish ritual and practice, while also learning and doing social justice work together in a community. I wanted to speak to their hearts and minds, to call for an integration of the spiritual, social, political and emotional self,” Brous said. And while IKAR didn’t target a specific population, “We wanted to realize this Jewish vision in a voice and with a vibe that would resonate with people who might find themselves outside the fold of conventional Jewish life.”

Today, IKAR’s success has brought it to a crossroads, nudging it closer to the world of institutional structure it initially associated with stagnation and emptiness.