Melissa Balaban

In 2004, wBalaban-Melissahen we founded IKAR and developed our membership model, we were acutely aware of the allergy most young Jews had to Jewish institutional life. We had an idea of how to address the pervasive sense of alienation and disaffection that many Jews, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, were experiencing. The four founding pillars of IKAR–Torah, Tikkun, Tefillah and Kehillah—were designed to address that alienation by expressing our core commitments and a way to expand one’s own Jewish horizons through learning and spiritual growth, through the work of tikkun – repair – of our city and our world, and through helping build community, both spiritually and physically. These four pillars align perfectly with the four propositions set forth in the Rabbi Schwarz’s essay.

We set out to develop and maintain a community of meaning and substance, and realized that to do so we needed the commitment, talent, and involvement of each of our members. Accordingly, when joining IKAR or renewing membership annually, each member completes our membership brit – and enters into a sacred partnership. We also ask members to re-affirm these core commitments on a “spiritual pledge card” on Rosh Hashanah.

Specifically, all IKAR members make at least one commitment in each of the four pillars that we determined are critical to an engaged and rich Jewish life. These specific commitments have evolved over the last 12 years, but the pillars and basic assumptions have remained constant.

 Kehillah: building a strong community, including:

  • Helping people feel welcome at IKAR Shabbat/holidays
  • Hesed: bringing food and love to IKARites during times of celebration and struggle
  • Committing to attending shiva minyanim
  • Hosting house parties and/or Shabbat meals
  • Volunteering at the IKAR office
  • Reading Torah/Haftarah on Shabbat/holidays
  1. Torah: deepening Jewish learning and practice, including:
  • Attending house parties and other adult learning opportunities
  • Attending weekly minyan & midrash
  • Learning to read Hebrew
  • Learning to read Torah/Haftarah
  • Attending Parent and Me classes
  • Attending Limudim (IKAR’s religious school)
  1. Tikkun: harnessing our collective power to make the world more just. One of IKAR’s foundational principles is our belief that the active pursuit of justice is a core expression of our Jewish spiritual and religious selves. Minyan Tzedek, our long-term social justice initiative, is designed to harness the holiness and organizing power of small cohorts that share a sacred purpose of bringing justice and equality into our world. Through Minyan Tzedek we organized our community into minyanim (or “paths”) with a goal of engaging every member of the community to work for justice and dignity and inspire deeper Jewish learning and living. The four paths are:
  • Feeding Our Neighbors (direct service)
  • Community Organizing
  • Green Action (environmental justice)
  • Global Partnership (with a village in Uganda through Innovation Africa, an organization that helps install Israeli solar and irrigation technology in rural Africa to create sustainability)
  1. Tzedakah: contributing financially to IKAR’s sustainability. When people join IKAR and again on Yom Kippur, we emphasize the importance of tzedakah for IKAR specifically by explaining that membership dollars cover only a fraction of our basic expenses and that tzedakah fuels our work in building a vibrant Jewish community.

We ask a lot of our people. But the success of IKAR’s brit model is really a proof text for Rabbi Schwarz’s assumptions. We have found that many Jews who are alienated by conventional institutional life are seeking meaningful entry points into Jewish learning, ritual and spiritual life. They want accessibility and low barriers to entry, but once there, they want to be challenged with an experience that is authentic, stimulating, open-minded and non-judgmental.

Accessibility has frequently been synonymous with a watering-down of the core principles and tenets of Judaism. Many Jewish institutions, afraid of alienating the young and unaffiliated, have over-simplified Jewish learning, liturgy and rituals so that many feel what they experience in synagogue is not only un-stimulating, but also profoundly uninteresting. We have found that that by working to create meaningful and challenging Jewish experiences through study, prayer and social justice, we can entice even the most disaffected Jew and begin to catalyze change.


Melissa Balaban is the Executive Director and Founding president of IKAR. Prior to joining IKAR, Melissa was Assistant Dean at the University of Southern California Law School, Directing Attorney of Public Counsel’s Child Care Law Project, a senior consultant for a national human resources consulting firm, and an adjunct professor at Loyola Marymount MBA program.



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