Isado­ra Kianovsky speaks with Rab­bi Sharon Brous about her new book The Amen Effect. They delve into the process of com­pil­ing and cre­at­ing this pow­er­ful book, and its impor­tant res­o­nances for our con­tem­po­rary Jew­ish world. 

Isado­ra Kianovsky: What inspired you to trans­late your ser­mons into a book for the wider pub­lic? Could you talk about your process of doing so, and if/​how the form and approach of the book might dif­fer from that of the sermons? 

Sharon Brous: The ser­mon is a deeply emo­tion­al and pow­er­ful tool for con­nect­ing the teacher/​preach­er and com­mu­ni­ty, for invit­ing peo­ple to access ideas simul­ta­ne­ous­ly through the head and also the heart. A good ser­mon makes us cry and some­times laugh, teach­es us some­thing we didn’t know before, helps us see some­thing we did know before in a new way, acti­vates, engages, some­times enrages, always inspires. It enters us into dia­logue with gen­er­a­tions of peo­ple who came before us and strug­gled with these same texts and ideas but through dif­fer­ent lens­es. It mar­ries new, dif­fer­ent, or unex­pect­ed reads of tra­di­tion­al texts with sto­ries that open the heart and make us want to live differently. 

When I gave a ser­mon called The Amen Effect” at IKAR years ago, some­thing pow­er­ful, won­der­ful, and mys­te­ri­ous hap­pened. It changed us, as a com­mu­ni­ty. I could feel it. Since then, when­ev­er I’ve shared the idea in talks in oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, I can feel its res­o­nance. Peo­ple often gasp or tear up when I even just share the main idea, drawn direct­ly from a (fair­ly obscure) Mish­nah. It helps them feel seen. Less lone­ly. Less help­less. More hopeful. 

Even still, the ser­mon is a lim­it­ed for­mat for engage­ment. The rabbi/​pas­tor has many twelve min­utes, maybe thir­ty — not more — to inspire. For years I won­dered what a deep dive would look like into this core idea. What might I learn, and be able to share, if I let this ser­mon breathe, if I gave it 50,000 words, rather than 5,000

In the end, the book reads like a series of ser­mons, with sto­ries, texts, and stud­ies. But these are all woven togeth­er into one super-ser­mon, a book that can be read over time, or even in one sitting.

IK: How do you think your book fits into the cur­rent moment, both Jew­ish­ly and on a uni­ver­sal scale? 

SB: I wrote this book for anoth­er world. I spent two decades wrestling with the ques­tion of how we heal, indi­vid­u­al­ly and col­lec­tive­ly, in a time of lone­li­ness, social alien­ation, and so much divi­sion. I want­ed to share some of what I have learned build­ing and pas­tor­ing to IKAR, some of the pow­er­ful lessons about love and loss, com­mu­ni­ty and connection.

But when I closed the man­u­script a year ago, I real­ly could not have imag­ined the real­i­ty we find our­selves in, as the book launch­es in a post-Octo­ber 7 world. In Novem­ber, I stepped into the sound booth to record the book with great trep­i­da­tion. To my great relief, I found that the mes­sage not only holds up, but actu­al­ly feels more rel­e­vant now than at the time when I wrote it. After all, the pow­er of root­ing one­self in ancient wis­dom is that it real­ly does stand the test of time.

IK: Which ser­mon was most chal­leng­ing for you to write, and why? 

SB: The words of this book poured out of me. The most chal­leng­ing part was putting the pieces togeth­er in a way that would have both emo­tion­al, spir­i­tu­al, and intel­lec­tu­al heft. I want­ed to sur­prise, inspire, and offer some­thing new. I prob­a­bly spent the most time on chap­ter two, the chap­ter on lone­li­ness. There is so much great lit­er­a­ture on lone­li­ness now, and I want­ed to make sure that what I’d bring would be addi­tive and not repetitive. 

The ser­mon is a deeply emo­tion­al and pow­er­ful tool for con­nect­ing the teacher/​preach­er and com­mu­ni­ty, for invit­ing peo­ple to access ideas simul­ta­ne­ous­ly through the head and also the heart.

IK: On Ezra Klein’s pod­cast, you men­tion a group of Pales­tini­ans and Israelis that focus­es on the idea…that if we are going to live as neigh­bors, we have to learn how to share our grief so that we can col­lec­tive­ly build a shared soci­ety and a shared future.” How do you hope your ser­mons and book add to this con­ver­sa­tion and the hope of a col­lec­tive future? 

SB: In the final chap­ter, I explain that the lion’s share of the book is an argu­ment that open­heart­ed, authen­tic human con­nec­tion is a spir­i­tu­al and bio­log­i­cal neces­si­ty; it is the key to belong­ing and the anti­dote to lone­li­ness; it can be the deep­est expres­sion of faith, hon­or­ing the image of God; it gives our lives pur­pose and mean­ing; it helps us approach moments of joy and pain authen­ti­cal­ly; it helps both the wound­ed and the heal­ers; it won’t save us, but mat­ters pro­found­ly nonethe­less. But what hap­pens when encoun­ter­ing the oth­er is more than incon­ve­nient, uncom­fort­able, or even desta­bi­liz­ing, but actu­al­ly treach­er­ous, even dan­ger­ous? What hap­pens when anoth­er person’s pres­ence not only repels us, but ren­ders us unsafe? When is it right to with­draw from a rela­tion­ship, to for­ti­fy one­self rather than open up? 

It is here that I explore the bound­aries of engage­ment, and how the Jew­ish tra­di­tion push­es us to engage with curios­i­ty and empa­thy toward almost every­one. This, of all the mes­sages, will be the hard­est and most impor­tant in our cur­rent cli­mate. We are trau­ma­tized and full of sor­row. We are com­plete­ly torn apart — per­haps more now than ever. I ful­ly under­stand why it might feel impos­si­ble to find our way to one anoth­er, to stitch back togeth­er the frayed edges of our bro­ken hearts and our soci­ety. I get why good peo­ple retreat and entrench in times like these. 

But I know that heal­ing is pos­si­ble. The real­i­ty is, the only way for­ward is togeth­er. I hear the tra­di­tion call­ing us to curios­i­ty. Emo­tion­al agili­ty. Won­der. Imag­i­na­tion. We must find our way to one another’s human­i­ty, and then togeth­er, imag­ine a dif­fer­ent kind of future. 

IK: What are you read­ing right now? 

SB: I just fin­ished an advanced copy of my friend, Bri­an McLaren’s aston­ish­ing­ly pow­er­ful book, Life After Doom, about the cli­mate cri­sis and the urgent need to har­ness our resilien­cy for a kind of dev­as­ta­tion that looks increas­ing­ly inevitable. I deeply appre­ci­ate the way that McLaren speaks hard truths — less as an activist, wield­ing a cud­gel, and more as a pas­tor, with his own bro­ken and still hope­ful heart. With­out blame, but with shared respon­si­bil­i­ty. With hon­esty, and also with ten­der love and care.

Isado­ra Kianovsky (she/​her) is the Devel­op­ment Asso­ciate at the Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and has loved Jew­ish books since she was about eight years old. She grad­u­at­ed from Smith Col­lege in 2023 with a B.A. in Jew­ish Stud­ies and a minor in His­to­ry. Pri­or to work­ing at JBC, she interned at the Hadas­sah-Bran­deis Insti­tute, the Jew­ish Wom­en’s Archive, and also stud­ied abroad a few times to learn about dif­fer­ent aspects of Jew­ish cul­ture and his­to­ry! Out­side of work, she loves to write and spend time with her loved ones.