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God, politics and Jewish survival

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Rabbi Sharon Brous, named by Newsweek as the most influential woman rabbi in the U.S., will present two different lectures in the Twin Cities

By ERIN ELLIOTT BRYAN / Community News Editor

With so much at stake in this election year, Los Angeles-based Rabbi Sharon Brous is interested in the reemergence of God and religion as the central dimension of the debate among presidential candidates.

“One of the issues that I’m interested in exploring is whether the entrance or reentry of God and religion into political discourse is a force for narrowing the conversation or for expanding it,” Brous told the AJW. “And it seems like religion can be used in either way; either as a unifying force that brings a sense of inclusiveness and shared purpose to the conversation, or as a force for divisiveness that says there’s this religious culture war going on and you’re either on one side of the equation or the other.”

Brous will present “God and Politics: A Spiritual State of the Union” 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 13 in the auditorium of O’Shaughnessy Educational Center at the University of St. Thomas, 2115 Summit Ave., St. Paul. The event, which is free and open to the public, is sponsored by the Jay Phillips Center for Interfaith Learning.

She will present the same lecture on Monday, March 12 at St. John’s University in Collegeville, Minn.

Rabbi Sharon Brous: What we’re experiencing now, in terms of religious intolerance and divisiveness, is only going to get more extreme as we get closer to the elections in November.Rabbi Sharon Brous: What we’re experiencing now, in terms of religious intolerance and divisiveness, is only going to get more extreme as we get closer to the elections in November.

“It strikes me that whatever we’re experiencing now, in terms of religious intolerance and divisiveness, is only going to get more extreme as we get closer to the elections in November,” Brous said. “It will be interesting and important for us to have a really frank conversation about what’s happening in the country, where the fault lines are being drawn, and what role religion could play, if it can play a very positive role in American political life as opposed to the role it may actually be playing now.”

Brous, 37, was named by Newsweek as America’s most influential woman rabbi, and she was also named to the Forward’s list of the 50 most influential American Jews. She is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a vibrant Jewish spiritual community in Los Angeles known for its soulful prayer services and energetic social justice work.

Brous is a frequent contributor to the Washington Post’s “On Faith” blog, and serves on the board of Rabbis for Human Rights and as a member of the Task Force to Advance Multireligious Collaboration on Global Poverty.

While she’s in the Twin Cities, Brous will also speak at Shir Tikvah Congregation as the Lou Wiener Memorial Leader in Jewish Innovation. She will present “Essential Ingredients for Vibrant Community: Authenticity, Creativity and Moral Courage” 7 p.m. Wednesday, March 14 at the synagogue, 1360 W. Minnehaha Pkwy., Minneapolis.

Brous sees the elements of authenticity, creativity and moral courage as a necessary part of the Jewish community in order for it to survive and thrive in the 21st century. She brought those elements to the forefront when she co-founded IKAR (Hebrew for “essence”) in 2004.

The community attracts people who are in their 20s, 30s and early 40s who were previously unaffiliated, disengaged and disaffected.

“What we really set out to do, and part of the reason we called it IKAR, was to reclaim some of the essential elements of Jewish life, very traditional elements, but to engage them in a way that would be fiercely creative and imaginative so that people would be surprised by the depths of experience that they were able to have,” Brous said. “And, at the same time, that would necessarily call for a connection between our spiritual and religious practice and what was happening on the street. There’s no way that one can develop a serious and wholehearted religious life and not engage deeply in the great moral concerns of our day.”

Brous said there is a very strong connection between the community’s experience of Shabbat and the way its members work in the world Sunday through Thursday. According to Newsweek, members are expected to sign up for social justice projects and Torah is consistently linked to responsibility in the world.

Brous didn’t grow up religious, but had a very strong sense of Jewish identity, though she struggled to find a way to fit into the Jewish community. At a certain point, she realized that many of the people she admired most who were agents of social change — Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel — were people who had faith at the foundation of their activism.

“They were people who were really driven by a vision of what the world could look like, and really believed that human dignity was a core and essential element of being human and something that all of us needed to fight for,” Brous said. “And once I had that realization, I realized that I really need to fight to find my own faith and to understand how my own religious tradition would be more than a sense of identity, but would actually affect the lens through which I experience the whole world.”

Brous’ IKAR community is now thriving — despite the sociological and anthropological evidence of a diminishing engagement in the Jewish community, outside of the Orthodox movement.

“What I’m interested in doing is awakening in the hearts of Jews… a sense of personal connection and personal responsibility to Judaism and the Jewish community, which will awaken in us a much larger sense of a more universal kind of connectedness and obligation and responsibility,” Brous said.

(American Jewish World, 3.2.12)

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