One-on-One with Tidewater Together’s Rabbi Sharon

by | Mar 20, 2015 | Other News

Rabbi Sharon Brous.

For four days, Jews in Tidewater— and beyond—are invited to be part of the 2nd Annual Tidewater Together, a journey of Jewish insight, understanding and growth.

Tidewater Together’s goal is to welcome all Jews, inclusive of race, class, gender and practice, to participate in a series of discussions designed to create dialogue, deepen connections to Judaism, and to nurture a vision for the future that will ultimately strengthen the Jewish community.

Rare in American Jewish communities, the presentation is the result of a partnership between area synagogues of all affiliations and the United Jewish Federation of Tidewater.

With major financial support from the Milton “Mickey” Kramer Scholarin- Residence Fund, Tidewater Together scheduled the respected and highly popular Los Angeles-based Rabbi Sharon Brous as the weekend’s facilitator. Brous is the founding rabbi of IKAR, a spiritual Jewish community that interweaves inventive religious practice and active social justice.

Defining Rabbi Brous is a challenge. She’s intensely committed to teaching and sharing Jewish values through Judaism’s oldest texts and rituals, but her style of doing so is decidedly non-traditional. Brous’ methods of mixing old and new are proving successful; IKAR’s practices resonate with many previously unengaged Jews, rabbinical students and Orthodox Jews, too.

Local rabbis call Brous dynamic, brilliant and devoted. Major media outlets have held her up as one of America’s top rabbis—some have even listed her as the nation’s number one rabbi. The world got to see Brous when she was televised globally, bestowing a Hebrew blessing on President Obama and Vice-President Biden at their second inauguration.

Over Tidewater Together’s long weekend, Brous will lead six different conversations, at six different locations—speaking about topics ranging from Shabbat and the Power of the Outsider to Finding Inspiration and Making Change.

Recently, Brous took the time to share her philosophy and reveal her goals in a one-on-one interview for readers of the Jewish News:

JN: We’re looking forward to having you come and speak with us. You’re an in-demand speaker who could choose to go to much bigger places. Why did you agree to be part of the 2nd Annual Tidewater Together?
RB: Rabbi Artson, a very dear friend, assured me that this is a weekend not to be missed. I’m curious and eager to learn what drives your community, what questions you are asking, what the challenges are and what the successes have been over the years.

All ages, all classes, all affiliations, or non-affiliations, will be coming to learn from you and with you during Tidewater Together. How are you going to reach across all of these different groups to share your messages, to inspire us all?
We built IKAR to be diverse and dynamic, attracting the very knowledgeable and committed at the same time as the most skeptical and disaffected. I strive to teach in a way that is meaningful to both populations—accessible to the people with the least amount of formal learning in the room and at the same time stimulating and challenging for the deeply engaged.

How much knowledge does someone need to have who’s coming to hear you speak—of Hebrew, or Judaism or Jewish practices?

No knowledge at all. Just curiosity and open mind and heart.

I don’t ever assume that people in the room have any particular learning background. When I entered into the Jewish conversation in a more serious way I was in college, and I was always the person in the room who knew the least—or at least I felt I was—and I know how incredibly awkward and alienating that can be. So I always assume that there are people in the room who are not familiar with Jewish texts and ideas.

I have found that when you talk about ideas, without an assumption of previous knowledge but with an assumption that people are thoughtful, smart and curious, it’s not so difficult to bridge the gap between the populations.

What do you hope the community gets out of the conversations you’ll lead?
I have a very strong sense that Judaism— and really religion in general—over the past couple of decades has failed to capture the imagination of our people. I think this is a very big problem, and a profound concern. We don’t talk enough about big ideas in the Jewish community. We don’t talk about who we are, fundamentally. What it means to be a Jew and a human being in the world. I’m trying to help reconnect people to the essence of our tradition, to the core ideas that have driven Judaism over the past several thousand years.

What is your response to people who may be wary about coming, who may be resistant to hearing something that is unfamiliar?
I hope that people will come with an open heart and an open mind, so that we can hear one another and engage together. That really seems to me to be the only way to learn and grow, as individuals and as a community.

I hope that people will come and engage. I certainly don’t expect everybody to agree with me—that would be a first!—but I think we all grow from trying to articulate what our core values are, how they’re drawn from our traditions, where we find inspiration, and what we think is possible in the world. The question is, do we all share an interest in helping to bring about the revitalization of a tradition that we care very deeply about, that right now we see in deep demographic freefall? There are so many people disassociating with Judaism altogether, can we find a way, together, to make this meaningful?

What I’m ultimately trying to do is bring people back into a conversation with traditional sources, rituals and ideas, but in a way that they perhaps have not encountered before. This is not witchcraft and wizardry. It’s Talmud and Torah and Shabbes and eating mindfully. Thinking carefully about what we believe and how we live. I try to find ways to rearticulate very old, core, foundational Jewish practices and Jewish values in a language that even people who feel disconnected from Jewish life might actually resonate to.

Why do you think Tidewater Together is important for our community?
For too many years, institutions in the Jewish world have been working at cross purposes with one another. When I spoke with Alex [Pomerantz, UJFT senior development officer], one of the things that was most exciting for me about this opportunity is really being in an environment where people understand that it will be to all of our benefit if more people are learning, if more Jewish ideas are being conversed about and spoken about, if people feel a deeper connection to core Jewish practices and conversations.

I love the idea that your community is able to overcome some of those obstacles and boundaries and work together, and I love that the Federation is working alongside the synagogues to try to find a way to bridge a gap between these various institutions so that we can share resources and work together to bring about a communal revitalization.

Tidewater Together conversations are free and open to the community. There is a $10 fee for the community Shabbat dinner before the general discussion on Friday night. To RSVP, and for a complete list of this year’s unique topics, times, hosts and locations, visit, call 757‑965‑6136, or email apomerantz@ujft. org.

by Laine Mednick Rutherford