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.

A few moments before starting to say Neilah, the haunting prayers that conclude the Yom Kippur service, Rabbi David Ingber asked an unusual question of the members of his congregation.

What were they praying for?

As three volunteers passed microphones into the pews, the room fell silent. Then, one person stood up. And another. And another.

One by one, in front of nearly 900 people gathered for Romemu’s High Holy Days services, held inside Manhattan’s cavernous Redeemer Presbyterian Church — a space rented specially that day for this wandering congregation — they shared their hopes, their dreams, their regrets and their shame.

Rabbi David Ingber
michael meysarosh
Rabbi David Ingber

It isn’t a scene that you would find in a traditional synagogue, but then, Romemu isn’t your average congregation. This divergent approach to Jewish prayer is attracting a wide range of followers, many of them Jews who feel alienated from traditional synagogues. Led by Ingber and his team, Romemu has gone from a handful of people to almost 500 member families in the past five years, said Ilene Sameth, the synagogue’s executive director. A year ago, there were only 300 member families. In the past two years, Romemu’s staff has doubled, expanding to eight full-time employees.

From its temporary home in the West End Presbyterian Church on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, Romemu seeks to offer a new — but also old — kind of Judaism: a personal sense of community and participation combined with spirituality of both the mind and the body.

“We’re trying to build the 21st-century synagogue and an expanded conversation about what the ultimate aim of a synagogue is,” explained Ingber, founder and spiritual director of Romemu. “It’s not just about Jewish identity, it’s about human flourishing.”

But this impressive growth comes with challenges, foremost of which is financial stability. Though a concern for any congregation, planning for sustainability is all the more important for a synagogue whose numbers include a sizable population of unaffiliated and younger Jews unaccustomed to financial contribution in return for a Jewish experience. The expansion is also challenging the congregation to find a balance between the intimate and personal setting provided in the early days and the growing diversity of its members. This diversity prompts another set of issues, namely how to guarantee a Jewish future for members who come from a wide spectrum of religious observances and Jewish knowledge.

And even some of its strongest supporters worry that Romemu could be hamstrung by its greatest asset — Ingber, with his charisma, skill and appeal.

The Yom Kippur scene, though surprising to outsiders, is nothing new for Romemu. Yoga techniques, meditation exercises, vocal participation, silent contemplation and music are an integral part of the service, based on Ingber’s own experiences with Eastern spiritual practices. The Yom Kippur service included a nine-person band, playing everything from standing base to tribal drums, and new hires include Basya Schechter, lead singer of the folk rock band Pharaoh’s Daughter, as musical director.

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.

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.

“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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