Brant Rosen, Suburban Chicago Rabbi, Doubles as Firebrand Critic of Israel

Evanston Congregation Stands by Jewish Voice for Peace Leader

Stand by Me: Rabbi Brant Rosen tends to the spiritual needs of a suburban Chicago synagogue, even as he speaks out fiercely against the Israeli occupation.
Stand by Me: Rabbi Brant Rosen tends to the spiritual needs of a suburban Chicago synagogue, even as he speaks out fiercely against the Israeli occupation.

By Menachem Wecker

Published November 20, 2013, issue of November 29, 2013.
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That represents a long journey for Rosen, whose decision to become a rabbi still surprises even him.

“I was not the worst in Hebrew school, but I was part of that pack,” the Los Angeles native said. “Our class was legendary in high school for chewing rabbis and teachers up and spitting them out.”

Rosen later connected with his Jewish identity in college, he said, when he fell in with “Habonim types,” referring to the Labor Zionist youth group. He soon came to identify as a “left-wing, progressive Zionist.” But when he ultimately turned toward making Judaism the central focus of his life, and enrolled in rabbinical school, he “swore up and down” that he’d never become a congregational rabbi.

Rosen basically agreed with a classmate who told him she wouldn’t pursue a pulpit because she didn’t want to “help comfortable middle-class Jews feel more comfortable about their lives,” he recalled. But later, again to his surprise, Rosen found that he really liked working with congregants.

Over coffee about 2 miles from his synagogue at Sol Café, in the Chicago neighborhood of Rogers Park — the cafe’s slogan is, aptly, “Coffee that feeds your soul” — Rosen mused on the irony of his current profile as a top activist with a group condemned by the ADL. Among other things, he related, his wife, Hallie Rosen, worked for the ADL for 15 years. This included a stint as associate director of the ADL’s Philadelphia regional office.

Rosen recalled showing his wife the Gaza post, which he believed could well derail his rabbinic career, before uploading it. Always supportive and a fellow traveler on his Israel journey, she told him it was his call.

“I was not sure that I could remain a congregational rabbi at all when I started going in this direction,” Rosen said. “I found, very much to my relief and delight, that I had a congregation that was able to have a rabbi like me doing this stuff even if there were many members of my congregation who didn’t agree with me, and many who were actually deeply pained by the things I was saying and doing.”

Rosen understands the reason that some congregants felt he wasn’t the rabbi they hired. A “small number” left the synagogue, he said, but in his opinion, “they already had one foot out the door.”

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