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Sharon Brous to be First Rabbi to Preach at Chautauqua’s Sunday Worship

Rabbi Sharon Brous

As a young woman, Rabbi Sharon Brous spent a weekend walking around the Old City of Jerusalem searching for the answers to life’s questions. When she found out that the answers were “facile and unconvincing,” she decided to devote her life to wrestling with the questions.

Brous, the first-ever rabbi to serve as chaplain-in-residence at Chautauqua, will preach at the 10:45 a.m. Ecumenical Service of Worship Sunday in the Amphitheater and will speak about her faith journey at the 5 p.m. Vespers Sunday in the Hall of Philosophy. She will preach Monday through Friday at the 9:15 a.m. Ecumencial Worship service in the Amphitheater.

In her 2016 TED Talk, “Reclaiming Religion,” which has been viewed 1.3 million times and translated into 20 languages, Brous noted that religions of all faiths were waning.

“Across the board, churches and synagogues and mosques are all complaining about how hard it is to maintain relevance for a generation of young people who seem completely uninterested, not only in the institutions that stand at the heart of our traditions but even in religion itself,” she said.

“And what (the institutions) need to understand is that there is today a generation of people who are as disgusted by the violence of religious extremism as they are turned off by the lifelessness of religious routine-ism.”

Brous sat down with a friend and sent out emails to about 20 people to join them on a Friday night to see what they could make of their Jewish inheritance before they “bailed on religion.” Over 135 came and the result of that wrestling is a community, IKAR, founded in 2004. IKAR means “the essence of or the heart of the matter.”

“The challenge today is to be animated by both gratitude and unrest, by humility and audacity, and to feel the exodus from Egypt — our people’s journey from slavery to freedom, from degradation to dignity — in our guts,” Brous wrote on IKAR’s website. “Our Jewish story calls us to become agents of social change whose fiercest weapons are love, faith and holy hutzpah.”

“Religious Moments that Changed the World” is the theme for the Week One Interfaith Lecture Series, and this is a moment that is changing Chautauqua’s religious life.

“I asked a variety of people why we had never invited a rabbi to serve as our chaplain and preacher of the week,” said The Rt. Rev. V. Gene Robinson in the 2019 winter Chautauquan.

“Other than ‘we’ve never done it that way,’ there was no good answer.”

Robinson noted that Methodist Bishop John H. Vincent said that “the theory of Chautauqua is life is one, and that religion belongs everywhere.” 

That Vincent said “religion” is a key element and not “Christianity” alone is important to Robinson.

Perhaps Vincent’s statement was a “precursor to what would become Chautauqua’s interfaith work,” Robinson said. He said that as long as he and Director of Religion Maureen Rovegno are  responsible for the spiritual and religious life and programming at Chautauqua, the morning worship services will remain Christian “albeit very welcoming of people from other faith traditions.”

“Let’s remember that the only ‘Bible’ Jesus ever knew was the Hebrew Scriptures,” he said. “It seems to me, that if it was good enough for Jesus, it ought to be good enough for us, too. Who better to teach us about God’s self and God’s will in those books than a rabbi.

“I wanted to ensure that our first rabbi chaplain was a sure ‘hit’ — Rabbi Sharon Brous is as close as I am going to get to ‘a sure thing.’ ”

With the goal of reinvigorating Jewish practice and inspiring people of faith to reclaim a moral and prophetic voice, IKAR quickly became one of the fastest growing and most influential Jewish congregations in the country. Today it is credited with sparking a rethinking of religious life in a time of unprecedented disaffection and declining affiliation.

Brous is in the inaugural cohort of Auburn Seminary’s Senior Fellows program, which unites top faith leaders working on the frontlines for justice. Brous also sits on Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti’s Interfaith Collective and on the faculty of the Shalom Hartman Institute of North America and REBOOT, and serves on the International Council of the New Israel Fund and the national steering committee for the Poor People’s Campaign. In 2013, she blessed President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden at the Inaugural National Prayer Service, and Garcetti at his inauguration in 2017.

She spoke at the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., in 2017, and at the national launch of the Poor People’s Campaign and the opening of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in 2018. Brous was named No. 1 on the Newsweek/The Daily Beast list of the most influential Rabbis in America, and has been recognized by The Forward and the Jerusalem Post as one of the 50 most influential Jews.

Brous is a graduate of Columbia University and was ordained by the Jewish Theological Seminary.

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The author Mary Lee Talbot

Mary Lee Talbot writes the morning worship column. This past winter she made her acting debut as Miss Maudy in To Kill A Mockingbird at the Lucille Ball Little Theater in Jamestown. She edited the forthcoming history of the Jewish presence at Chautauqua and wrote the history of the Chapel of the Good Shepherd for its 125th anniversary this summer. She is a member of the Chautauqua Lake Central School Board and lives year-round in Chautauqua with her dog, Max.