IKAR Looks To Build Without Losing Magic

Famously Progressive Los Angeles Shul Struggles With Growth

Surging: IKAR’s blend of joyful music and progressive politics is led by Rabbi Sharon Brous (with kiddush cup on right) and Hazan Hillel Tigay, playing guitar during 
havdallah after Yom Kippur services in 2011.
Melissa Balaban
Surging: IKAR’s blend of joyful music and progressive politics is led by Rabbi Sharon Brous (with kiddush cup on right) and Hazan Hillel Tigay, playing guitar during havdallah after Yom Kippur services in 2011.

By Rex Weiner

Published December 30, 2012, issue of January 04, 2013.
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Rabbi Yosef Kanefsky, of B’nai David Judea, an Orthodox congregation in the Pico-Robertson area, and IKAR’s close neighbor, praised the congregation for “doing a terrific job at engaging and drawing in Jews who might otherwise not find a way to connect.”

With an annual budget of $2.5 million and a staff of 18 full-time and 23 part-time employees, IKAR is ready to move out of its rented digs in L.A.’s Westside Jewish Community Center and put down roots.

“We wanted to build the heart and soul of our community before finding a shell to hold it,” Brous told the Forward, “knowing, down the line, we would build. But I wasn’t interested in building just another synagogue.”

The future home Brous envisions for IKAR is a hipster version of the traditional Jewish community center. The café will offer food that is both kosher and organic. The music lab will include a state-of-the-art recording studio — an important feature for IKAR’s musical leader, Hillel Tigay, dubbed the “Rock Cantor” by his fans.

The L.A. Federation says it also wants to play a role. Federation president Jay Sanderson sees IKAR in its new home as a key component in his long-gestating concept of a network of community “hubs” to anchor L.A.’s geographically and philosophically disparate Jewish community. No budget has yet been drawn up for the initiative, called Nu Roots, which has been in the planning stages for 18 months. But Sanderson promised, “We’ll be working with them to raise funds for a specific area that fits this initiative.”

There is a hitch slowing down the process, though: finding the right building in the right geographic location — one that will allow the maximum number of Jews from the most diverse streams of religious observance to participate. In sprawling L.A., that is no mean feat.

“We have members from across the religious spectrum — some who barely recognize Hebrew letters and others who are strictly observant and walk to Shabbat services,” said Balaban. IKAR’s leaders want their new home to remain within walking distance during the Sabbath for those traditionally observant community members.

That means staying roughly in the center of L.A., an area Balaban defines as equidistant from downtown and the beach, encompassing the neighborhoods of Pico-Robertson, Carthay Circle and Miracle Mile. With L.A. real estate prices now on the upswing, there’s urgency to make a decision. But other cautions abound.

“They’re taking a massive leap to becoming an institution with a building and ten times the expenses,” observed Sanderson. “All the things you want to avoid by being a grass-roots organization hit you in the head.”

The IKAR-ites are undaunted. “So much of what we do is what you do as a shul,” said Balaban. Now, she said, the congregation’s challenge is “integration of the secular with the magic of IKAR.”

Contact Rex Weiner at rexweiner@forward.com


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