As a college student in New York City, Sharon Brous felt ashamed that she didn’t know the Jewish prayer for washing her hands or the words to “Hatikvah.” Searching for answers, she would walk into synagogues and feel “embarrassed by my lack of knowledge. I felt like such an outsider,” she recalls.
Today, Brous is a nationally recognized leader in Jewish outreach to young, unaffiliated Jews who once felt as she did. Since she founded the Los Angeles-based IKAR five years ago, the 35-year-old rabbi has drawn thousands of people to her nondenominational congregation known for its uplifting prayer services, volunteer and social justice programs and innovative events that transport Judaism out of the traditional synagogue setting, such as its “ask the rabbi” sessions held in neighborhood bars and private homes.
“I had wanted to create, not a synagogue, but a spiritual community, both deeply rooted in Jewish texts and liturgy and dedicated to the transformation of our society,” says Brous, who’s appeared on Newsweek’s top 50 rabbis list two years in a row.
Also listed this year in Newsweek as one of America’s 25 most vibrant Jewish congregations, IKAR began as a vision that Brous shared with a small group of people “who had given up on synagogue life. I had been thinking about the next iteration of community in the Jewish world,” she says. “How could I reach out to those who were completely disconnected from Jewish life but still searching for ways to connect as Jews?”
Raised in New Jersey, Brous thought she would be a civil rights lawyer when she grew up. In junior high, she tutored a girl from a low-income neighborhood “whose poverty shocked and disturbed me. Because of her, I developed a real sense of obligation to respond to the needs of the most vulnerable,” she says.
While studying history at Columbia University, Brous found herself struggling with her Jewish identity. She decided to spend a semester in Jerusalem, where she fell in love with Talmud study and realized “I could still work for social change, but it would be in the context of a faith community,” she says.
After receiving rabbinic ordination at the Jewish Theological Seminary and a master’s degree in human rights from Columbia University, Brous worked at the New York City-based Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, where she met her mentors, the rabbis Rolando Matalon and Marcelo Bronstein. “They taught me that it’s not enough to grasp an issue intellectually. You have to open your heart both to feel the pain and see the beauty of the world,” she says.
Brous relocated to Los Angeles in 2002 with her husband, with whom she now has three children. “I am constantly juggling,” she says of her busy schedule. “But knowing that my work is creating a better Jewish community for my kids gives me strength.”
A charismatic speaker with a reputation for brilliant holiday sermons, Brous also serves on the faculty for the progressive Jewish think tank Reboot and Hebrew Union College. She recently received the inaugural Inspired Leadership Award, sponsored by the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. “It’s a different world today,” she says of being a young female rabbi. “In the 1990s, people seemed more concerned with what I was wearing than what I was saying. Today, that’s not the case.”
Though Brous says she’s “only at the beginning” of fulfilling her vision, she has good reason to feel optimistic about the future. “We felt IKAR was born at the right time,” she recalls of the congregation’s first Shabbat service, when 135 people showed up instead of the expected 40. “We all had the sense that something truly miraculous was happening.”