Romemu's Popular Rabbi and New Age Prayer Brings Growth — and Challenges

Can Upper West Side Congregation Handle Success?

Wandering Jews: Members of Romemu celebrate Simchat Torah at their temporary home at the West End Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.
courtesy of romemu
Wandering Jews: Members of Romemu celebrate Simchat Torah at their temporary home at the West End Presbyterian Church in Manhattan.

By Anne Cohen

Published September 20, 2013, issue of September 27, 2013.
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But Ingber is quick to argue that his nondenominational congregation does not practice “Judaism light.” Rather, inspired by the Renewal movement espoused by Ingber’s mentor, Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi, Romemu seeks to bring the Jewish experience a step forward, based on deep textual knowledge, but also grappling with more universal humanistic values.

“The software that we’re running would always be supported by the hardware, as well,” Ingber said. “The operating system of Judaism must be updated. Some pieces have been left out in synagogues around the country.”

The reference to technology is appropriate. At Romemu’s core is a desire for inclusivity; all are welcome — even virtually. Services are streamed live online (nearly 1,000 people reportedly tuned in during the High Holy Days), and Ingber’s sermons are uploaded to YouTube, iTunes and SoundCloud, the latter of which has more than 250,000 followers.

“I want the community to be on fire for transformation, for individual and communal growth, and I want it to express itself not only in social action, but in feeling,” Ingber said. “I want it to be a place where every emotion is invited in and is safe. People get it — it’s real, we really mean it. We’re not just going through the motions.”

This desire for connection fits into larger trends in Jewish religious life. “In the last decade, we have seen a rise in intentional and specialized religious communities led by talented, generally younger clergy people,” explained Steven M. Cohen, sociologist and research professor of Jewish social policy at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, in New York.

Rabbi Sid Schwarz, who founded and, for 21 years, led Panim: The Institute for Jewish Leadership and Values, called these new congregations “intentional spiritual communities.”

“[Just] because a building puts a Magen David on the front and holds services every week doesn’t make it an intentional spiritual community,” Schwarz explained. “Too many synagogues provide a range of services, but people in there are in a consumer relationship with that institution.

“That’s what I think these rabbinic entrepreneurs are onto: how to create empowered organizational culture where the programming isn’t just coming from the staff, but ‘do it yourself’ Judaism, which is clearly the spirit of this generation.”

Cohen pointed to spiritual communities like IKAR in Los Angeles, led by Rabbi Sharon Brous, and Mishkan in Chicago, led by Rabbi Lizzi Heydemann, as comparable phenomena. Brous and Heydemann were both ordained in Conservative seminaries — the Jewish Theological Seminary and American Jewish University, respectively — and went on to create communities that transcend those denominations.

“American Jewish institutions were built in the 20th century on a model that simply doesn’t resonate for many people anymore,” Brous told the Forward. “What I realized after speaking to hundreds of unaffiliated Jews is that what they reject about Judaism is not Shabbat and the concept of creating holy time; what they reject is the ‘please rise, please be seated’ formality, the formality of responsive reading. There is now a conflict where people’s hearts are and what the institutions are set up to deliver on.”

Like Romemu, many of these spiritual communities don’t have a fixed address — yet. IKAR is currently looking for a permanent building that will serve both as a synagogue and as a spiritual center, as is Romemu.


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