We were finally able to attend Shabbat morning services at IKAR on our trip to LA, a luxury that the work of a pulpit rabbi living 3000 miles in the other direction does not often get to experience. Rabbi Sharon Brous and I have been friends for about 8 years now and this is actually the first time I've gotten to simply pray with her, as opposed to be a conference, sit on a panel, or get cited as a community organizing co-conspirator for the "young generation of American Jews."
Ikar started along the same lines as Brooklyn Jews and whereas I went to Beth Elohim in 2006 with the Brooklyn Jews programming model to help grow the synagogue, Sharon started from scratch with Ikar and has steadily built it into a community in its own right, clearly fed by the burning engine of her own vision and spirituality along with a deeply committed collection of Los Angeles Jews who believe deeply in IKAR's commitment to Torah, Prayer and Social Justice.
Labels don't really apply here. I was going to suggest a few adjectives for describing the services--liberal conservative; revivalist spiritual; renewal with Carlebach; traditional and egalitarian. But the labels don't apply. They are mere approximations of one aspect or another when what people in attendance were really looking for was a genuine whole. I saw faculty members from HUC and AJU; day school teachers from across the denominational spectrum; and participants from all walks of Jewish life. Each cohered to the commitment of the genuine whole. And I think this is where American Judaism, without a doubt, is headed.
I increasingly find in my own work, serving as "Senior Rabbi of a Reform synagogue," that that particular label does not adequately describe what it is that I do but rather serves as a template that is more restrictive of the work than we think. I wonder what we would learn, for instance, if we surveyed every pulpit rabbi in America, categorized them by age and denomination, and then asked them what their top five list of motivations are for serving the Jewish community as rabbis. I think the denominational lens would be very low on that list of five (if it made it there at all) and I think the results of that survey would be very liberating for American Judaism.
(Steven Cohen and Ari Kelman, get on it!)
In the traditional pulpits, we are set up to do what we are expected to do: be there in the community for people to identify communally as Jews; train children for bar and bat mitzvah; serve others in times of need--at birth, marriage, illness and death; and serve as a bridge between Jews and non-Jews, an essential part of synagogue work these past hundred years that often gets lost in the "New Jew" debates: synagogues have served a vital role in the process of Americanization and citizenship development.
The denominations have helped assimilate more than anything else--that is to say, mediating between the universal values of American culture and the particular values of Jewish culture and civilization. How much Hebrew? How much allegiance to Jewish law? How ought one to dress? What foods ought one to eat? And how allied with Israel (raising, heaven forbid, questions of 'dual-loyalty') ought one to be? And for the better part of the prior century, American Jewish intellectual debates hinged on those denominational distinctions. But as we now begin to look back, we see that with Israel more than 60 years old as a nation and the complete acceptance of Jewish studies into nearly every major American university, a different paradigm is beginning to emerge where the organizing questions are not denominational but rather more broadly defined--how Jewish; how spiritual; how intellectual; how deeply committed to social justice; how allied with Israel; how observant? And, I dare say, one may even add a few other qualitative distinctions like: How close is it to where I live? And, how cool is it?
In any case, what made yesterday's experience at IKAR so great was the utter genuineness of it all. In a room that was comprised of three generations of Jews, from all backgrounds, seeking fellowship in Torah, Spirituality and Social Justice, an authentic Jewish community is being made each day. And what is central to its integrity is that its spiritual leader represents no particular trend or denomination but rather the three-fold credo of a 1st century sage, Rabbi Shimon HaTzadik in Pirke Avot--that the world stands on three things, Learning, Prayer and Deeds of Lovingkindness.