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.
  • Print
  • Share Share
  • Single Page

(page 4 of 4)

“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.


The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.





Find us on Facebook!
  • More than 50 former Israeli soldiers have refused to serve in the current ground operation in #Gaza.
  • "My wife and I are both half-Jewish. Both of us very much felt and feel American first and Jewish second. We are currently debating whether we should send our daughter to a Jewish pre-K and kindergarten program or to a public one. Pros? Give her a Jewish community and identity that she could build on throughout her life. Cons? Costs a lot of money; She will enter school with the idea that being Jewish makes her different somehow instead of something that you do after or in addition to regular school. Maybe a Shabbat sing-along would be enough?"
  • Undeterred by the conflict, 24 Jews participated in the first ever Jewish National Fund— JDate singles trip to Israel. Translation: Jews age 30 to 45 travelled to Israel to get it on in the sun, with a side of hummus.
  • "It pains and shocks me to say this, but here goes: My father was right all along. He always told me, as I spouted liberal talking points at the Shabbos table and challenged his hawkish views on Israel and the Palestinians to his unending chagrin, that I would one day change my tune." Have you had a similar experience?
  • "'What’s this, mommy?' she asked, while pulling at the purple sleeve to unwrap this mysterious little gift mom keeps hidden in the inside pocket of her bag. Oh boy, how do I answer?"
  • "I fear that we are witnessing the end of politics in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. I see no possibility for resolution right now. I look into the future and see only a void." What do you think?
  • Not a gazillionaire? Take the "poor door."
  • "We will do what we must to protect our people. We have that right. We are not less deserving of life and quiet than anyone else. No more apologies."
  • "Woody Allen should have quit while he was ahead." Ezra Glinter's review of "Magic in the Moonlight": http://jd.fo/f4Q1Q
  • Jon Stewart responds to his critics: “Look, obviously there are many strong opinions on this. But just merely mentioning Israel or questioning in any way the effectiveness or humanity of Israel’s policies is not the same thing as being pro-Hamas.”
  • "My bat mitzvah party took place in our living room. There were only a few Jewish kids there, and only one from my Sunday school class. She sat in the corner, wearing the right clothes, asking her mom when they could go." The latest in our Promised Lands series — what state should we visit next?
  • Former Israeli National Security Advisor Yaakov Amidror: “A cease-fire will mean that anytime Hamas wants to fight it can. Occupation of Gaza will bring longer-term quiet, but the price will be very high.” What do you think?
  • Should couples sign a pre-pregnancy contract, outlining how caring for the infant will be equally divided between the two parties involved? Just think of it as a ketubah for expectant parents:
  • Many #Israelis can't make it to bomb shelters in time. One of them is Amos Oz.
  • According to Israeli professor Mordechai Kedar, “the only thing that can deter terrorists, like those who kidnapped the children and killed them, is the knowledge that their sister or their mother will be raped."
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?




















We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.