One America Voices: Melissa Balaban

Melissa Balaban

Los Angeles, California

Executive Director, Ikar

1. You are the co-founder and Executive Director of Ikar. Tell us about that.

A: When I was part of founding IKAR in 2004, our goal was to help reclaim the vitality and relevance of Jewish religious practice and reimagine the contours of what a Jewish community could look like.  We wanted to reanimate Jewish life through imaginative and traditional engagement with ritual and spiritual practice and a deep commitment to social justice.  We wanted a community that is at once pious and irreverent and would attract a great diversity of Jews–from ringers to the completely disengaged– and mobilize them to contribute their vast intellectual and creative resources to address real world concerns effectively.

Since 2004, IKAR has grown from a handful of people in my living room to a community of more than 650-member households.   In addition to establishing a vital presence in Los Angeles, IKAR has also become a model of engaging, authentic, resonant Jewish life that is inspiring change in synagogues and communities around the country.

Working and nurturing IKAR as the founding board chair and now executive director, has been one of my most challenging, fulfilling and inspiring experiences. What started as a desire to create a Jewish community that I wanted to be part of, became a life’s journey of conversation about rethinking our Jewish institutions and ensuring that they remain relevant, inspiring and are able to sustain the continuity of our rich tradition while at the same time embracing traditional ritual.

2. What is the best part about living in Los Angeles?

A: As my husband says, 75 and sunny 300 days per year does not suck.  It also is remarkable to live in one of the most diverse cities in the world and have the opportunity to partner and work for justice with such a wide variety of people. And as a native Los Angeleno, I am so fortunate to have a deep and intricate community that helps sustain me and my family.

3. You spent seven months traveling and volunteering in Africa, Southeast Asia and Israel with your children. Tell us about that (and what your family and friends thought about it!)

A: In 2007, my husband and I decided to leave our jobs, and take our children (then 13 and 9 years old) on a seven-month adventure to Tanzania, Southeast Asia and Israel, during which we did a mix of volunteering and touring.  The opportunity to immerse our family in such an experience immeasurably strengthened our connection to each other and exposed all of us to a world beyond our reasonably privileged and sheltered lives.  The trip was transformative for our family and for each of us as individuals. Our family dynamic was permanently altered. Our daughters gained a complex and nuanced understanding of life outside of Los Angeles, and it helped form their worldview that they have carried into their young adult lives.

My husband and I became partners in entirely different way. We wrote blogs together which further enhanced are already substantial mutual love and respect for each other. We learned more from and about each other then we had from 16 years of marriage and it was really a blessing to enhance and reinvent our marriage after so many years together

And for seven months, I actually downshifted from my default pace of 100 miles a minute. I knew my true nature could not be repressed forever, but the seven-month reprieve was a critical moment for my family and me.

We saw the world through a new and incredibly valuable set of prisms. And our family developed into tight-knit unit that endured even after our daughters went off to college and into the world and left an indelible mark on all of our lives.

And of course, we met Andy Hanauer (One America Director) on the trip, so even without all of the above, it was well worth it.

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