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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The ramifications of his activism hit even closer to home at his younger son’s bar mitzvah, which occurred the month after he wrote the blog post. “I don’t want you to mention the word ‘Gaza’ once,” his son told him. Rosen admits that he was busy giving public statements on Israel at the time and trying to enlist supporters. “I was shamefully unfocused on the matter at hand,” he said.

Since that time, Rosen has made some effort to accommodate those of his congregants who feel uncomfortable with his Israel advocacy. Among other things, he may be the only American rabbi who doesn’t want people to “over-identify” him with his synagogue. He begins every outside speech he gives by stressing that he is only speaking personally. His official JRC bio emphasizes that his writings aren’t “official or unofficial positions or policies of JRC.” This, he said, was one of his synagogue board’s red lines in the aftermath of his blog post.

Rabbis who are involved with AIPAC never issue disclaimers like his, Rosen observed. “They don’t for a second take pains to say, ‘By the way, when I speak about AIPAC, I’m only speaking for myself,’” he said. “And I know for a fact that that is a source of great pain to many Jews who belong to these congregations.” The lack of transparency “creates the illusion that the Jewish community is in lockstep on these issues.”

Throughout his activism, Rosen has kept in mind the source of his paycheck. “The minute they feel like I care more about Palestinians than I care about them — who are my congregants — that’s the day, I think, I will lose my congregation,” he said.

Rosen also noted that his blog post came after a 10-year tenure at JRC: “If I had done this one year in, I would have been out on my ass.”

Rosen accounts for his congregation’s tolerance in two other ways: Reconstructionism attracts people seeking alternatives to prior, unhappy synagogue experiences, so they are more open-minded, he said; and they’re a self-selective group.

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