Seven independent Jewish communities – including one led by Livingston native Rabbi Sharon Brous – are joining together to share their successful methods for drawing large numbers of mostly younger and mostly unaffiliated Jews to religious services.
The Jewish Emergent Network — a new partnership of communities widely hailed for their innovative spirit — announced its first project last month: a fellowship for early-career rabbis.
Modeled on a fellowship at Ikar, Brous’s community in Los Angeles, the program will place rabbis in each of the participating communities for two years, during which they will receive mentorship and other training. Funded by the Jim Josephs Foundation and the Crown family of Chicago, the fellowship will begin in June.
The participating communities — in addition to Ikar and Mishkan, the group includes Lab/Shul and Romemu in New York, The Kitchen in San Francisco, Kavana in Seattle and Sixth & I in Washington, D.C. — are among the most successful young congregations in the United States.
They are led by rabbis routinely named to various annual lists of the most influential Jews and top American rabbis. Two of the seven even showed up on the website Jewrotica’s lists of the sexiest rabbis. They use buzzwords like “high-content Judaism” and “DIY Judaism.” Their services tend to be lively and musically oriented, and they are explicitly committed to welcoming all comers, regardless of level of religious practice or sexual orientation — or even whether the participants are Jewish. None is affiliated with a major denomination.
And even though they don’t have a regular space, let alone their own building, they are consistently able to draw hundreds to weekly Shabbat services and thousands on the High Holidays. The vast majority of attendees are under 40 and unaffiliated with traditional synagogues.
“The secret sauce is some kind of combination of being radically accessible and welcoming on the one hand, and raising the bar on engagement [on the other],” said Brous, who was named America’s top rabbi in 2013 by The Daily Beast.
“At Ikar we strive for an environment that really welcomes and embraces everyone – including folks who are ambivalent, atheist, or just cynical about community, ritual, even God,” Brous said. “And at the same time, we don’t lower the bar for them. If we did, they’d walk in and run out.”
Brous, who grew up in Livingston and Short Hills and at Congregation B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, received her rabbinical ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary. She founded Ikar, which now claims more than 570 member households, in 2004.
Noa Kushner, the fourth-generation Reform rabbi who leads The Kitchen, drew 1,000 people to High Holiday services last year in the most secular major metropolitan area of the country. A self-described “religious start-up,” The Kitchen is experimenting with a range of Silicon Valley-esque products, from a Pause app to create space daily for awe and gratitude to a deck of Passover cards to help newbies run their first seder.
“We don’t check pedigrees at the door,” Kushner said. “We have radical access. Anyone can stand up and say Kaddish. If you want to roll up your sleeves and do Jewish, we want you there.”
The Jewish Emergent Network came about through informal discussions among the communities over the past two years. So far it has raised $4 million toward a projected budget of $6 million that would fund two fellowship cohorts over four years.
Participants hope the fellowship will help spread their methods and thinking to other communities and, more broadly, that the network will help strengthen communities doing similar work. Beyond the fellowship, they are unsure where their partnership will lead, but they are certain where it won’t: For a group whose independence from the constraints of denominational affiliation has been their calling card, they are careful not to become what they have rebelled against.
“Some people have suggested, you’re building a movement. And I say, God forbid,” Brous said. “I have no interest in creating new institutional spaces with national conferences that people will roll their eyes at going to.
“My interest is in supporting each other, lifting the American Jewish community out of the demographic free fall and inspiring creative work.”