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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“Everything we do to increase people’s awareness of what a deep connection to Judaism means also includes the imperative to understand what you are joining,” said Sameth. “Judaism is not just a place, it’s a deep connection to a practice and so education is a huge piece of that. “

As it moves forward, Romemu will have to balance routine with innovation, Cohen pointed out. “Innovation is exciting in itself, but as innovative patterns continue, they become traditional,” he said. “So [the question is], how do you maintain a sense of continuity with a spark of change?

And how do you pay for it? Romemu’s financial sustainability depends heavily on a traditional dues system and private donations. Membership dues range from $250 for students, $864 for a single annual membership, $1,600 for couples and $2,200 for families. The congregation’s annual budget has grown to nearly $1.5 million. Roughly 30 percent of that number derives from membership dues. Half the budget relies on private donations and another 20 percent comes from small foundation grants and fees for services like Hebrew school and adult education programs.

Brous said that the challenge she — and Romemu — have is to inculcate the value of giving back monetarily to younger people who grew up with the mentality that Jewish services should be free.

This is what Schwarz calls the “Birthright curse” — Jews who grew up with free trips to Israel, and subsidized Jewish activities that have not been brought up to sustain their community financially. “We’ll pay a price for that for decades to come,” he said.

The same thing goes for Jews who have long been estranged from traditional synagogue models, Brous said.

“When you’re primarily addressing people who are disengaged Jews, who were unaffiliated, there’s not the same communal financial support. People can become diehard Romemu or IKARites, but it is for them anathema to write a check to help support this thing. They don’t make the leap between movement of the heart and tzedakah [charity].”

Financial sustainability is not the only challenge that Romemu faces. According to Schwarz, its biggest hurdle will be how to create a sustainable community that goes beyond reliance on a charismatic leader.

“It’s a chicken-and-egg issue. It’s hard to launch a congregation from scratch unless you have a charismatic leader,” he noted. “[David Ingber] is a big part of the show. But I think what’s key is when you have power, you can begin to empower and to convince the Jews you’re serving that they have the ability and the wherewithal to provide leadership to the community. Unless you turn that corner, it’s not going to happen.”

Thirty-one-year-old Rabbi Jessica Minnen, who graduated from JTS in May and became a Romemu member soon after, thinks that Ingber has done a good job of attracting talented people who make the overall congregation dynamic. “I think that he has surrounded himself with an incredible team and that the community stands on many pillars of which he is one,” she said.

To accommodate this increasingly engaged community, Romemu will need a space of its own. Though discussions about a potential building are in the early stages, Ingber has big plans. He envisions a structure — on the Upper West Side, Romemu’s logical home — that would serve as a center for spiritual programming, complete with space for yoga, a mikveh for men and women, a sustainable kosher cafe and a meditation space, with a synagogue at its heart. The center, Ingber said, will be named ABIA, an acronym made up of the first letter of each of the words that stands for the four worlds in “kabbalah”: mind, spirit, heart and body. The acronym also forms the words “self-expression,” in Hebrew.

Those words certainly characterize this congregation. As the Yom Kippur service drew to a close with the blast of the shofar, nearly 1,000 people rose together to dance frenetically after more than 25 hours of fasting.

“That’s a really good picture of what is drawing people,” Sameth said. “It’s an energizing form of Judaism.”

Contact Anne Cohen at cohen@forward.com or on Twitter, @anneesthercohen.

This article was edited by Jane Eisner without the involvement of Larry Cohler-Esses or Dan Friedman, Forward editors who have professional connections to Romemu.


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