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.
ALEX GRANGE
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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An October 2013 report from the Jewish Council for Public Affairs underlines how unusual Rosen’s profile is. Of 552 rabbis from varied points on the political spectrum that the council polled, nearly 40% said they sometimes or often avoided expressing their true feelings about Israel.

“[Rabbis] frequently find themselves fearful of, or caught in the maelstrom of, tension regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and their personal views about it,” the JCPA report said.

Rosen said the report’s findings were consistent with his own observations regarding his colleagues. “Most rabbis just don’t engage in Israel at all. They don’t fit in the AIPAC route,” he said, referring to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the powerful mainstream pro-Israel lobby. “But they’re also afraid to speak their truth on this issue…. I confess I was like that for a long time.”

Rosen’s credo for his own congregational leadership is a famous journalistic motto: to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.” If he had not become a rabbi, Rosen said, his longtime dream had been to become a newspaper columnist.

But many of those whom he has afflicted don’t think Rosen is doing God’s work. Asked if he had ever worked with Rosen, William Daroff, senior vice president for public policy and director of the Washington office of the Jewish Federations of North America, said, “Thankfully, I’ve never met him.” He called Jewish Voice for Peace “a scourge — anti-Zionist and supportive of policies that will lead to less peace.”

Deborah Lauter, the Anti-Defamation League’s director of civil rights, called JVP the country’s “largest Jewish anti-Zionist organization” and said, through a spokesman, that the rabbinical council Rosen co-chairs “tries to hekhsher” — to bestow kosher certification on — “the anti-Israel movement by claiming that Jewish values and Jewish rituals are consistent with anti-Israel advocacy.”

However thick Rosen’s skin, his activism comes with personal costs. It still pains him to have lost congregants after writing his blog post — particularly those whose babies he named, whose children’s bar mitzvahs he led and whose parents he buried.

“I’m there for them at the most powerful times in their lives. And you bond over that,” he said. “I felt like, ‘Really? After all we’ve been through together? It’s one political issue. You’re going to leave over this?!’”


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