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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So what sets Romemu apart? According to Cohen, the answer lies partly in the particular brand of knowledge and charisma provided by its leader.

“Rabbi David Ingber combines an unusual mix of talents,” he said. “He’s textually extraordinarily proficient; he brings a strong spiritual dimension, community skills, interpersonal talents, and is able to motivate and utilize his lay supporters and leaders to special effect.”

Nigel Savage, executive director of Hazon and a Romemu board member (though he also worships elsewhere), acknowledged that this desire to be heard on a personal level is representative of many trends in Jewish life. But for him, this development is not universally positive.

“It is clear,” he wrote in an email, “that the traditional synagogue model is breaking down, especially in the big cities and especially in New York. This is not a good thing — it reflects weakening ties of community. On the other hand, I think people really are looking for depth and connection. So even if they have had a bad shul experience, even if they’ve been alienated from Jewish life, they want to connect — and Romemu makes Jewish tradition both accessible and powerful.” While roughly 20% of its members are younger than 30, the Romemu community also includes baby boomers and engaged Jews from across the denominational spectrum. Rabbinical students from JTS mix with young families, grandparents who come with their children, people with a similar Modern Orthodox upbringing to that of Ingber and even curious interfaith participants.

Peter and Eleanor Bregman are Romemu members. He grew up in a Modern Orthodox home and attended The Ramaz School with Ingber. But when he sought to join a synagogue, he felt uncomfortable: His wife, a Protestant pastor, felt excluded, and his children, who underwent an Orthodox conversion almost at birth, were alone in their interfaith heritage.

“It’s rare that I have felt as included as Eleanor has felt included,” Bregman said.

For his wife, the appeal of Romemu is in Ingber’s ability to make Torah and textual learning meaningful.

“It’s such an open place,” Eleanor Harrison Bregman said. “With David, Judaism is not the end, it’s a means to an end. It’s not about being Jewish for Judaism’s sake….

Whatever parasha [weekly Torah portion] he’s talking about, I feel like he’s always taking it to a level that anybody could relate to because it’s about the stuff that we all experience.”

How the congregation will manage to sustain a Jewish future in the face of such a diverse membership remains to be seen, but it is a question that the leadership takes seriously. Rabbi Dianne Cohler-Esses recently joined the team as Romemu’s director of education and the class options have expanded to include adult b’nei mitzvah classes, lessons in Hebrew and understanding the prayer book, and even an introduction to Judaism.


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