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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Gwen Macsai, a JRC member for more than a decade, agreed. “I would say that JRC is very, very open-minded,” said Macsai, a radio producer whose credits include NPR’s “All Things Considered” and “Morning Edition.” “I think the people who are of the kind of Israel do-or-die, right-or-wrong kind of philosophy always have a home at JRC. But I think the more time goes by, the more [there is] a kind of self-selecting group that is a little bit more critical.”

Macsai doesn’t read Rosen’s blogs regularly, she said, and wasn’t sure she remembered which was the first controversy that he raised. “I’m someone who largely agrees with the stuff that he talks about,” she said. Other congregants decidedly do not. Lisa Pildes, who joined JRC long before 1998, when Rosen was hired, considers Rosen’s views on Israel to be “anti-Zionist, wrong-headed, poorly thought out [and] dangerous.

“Certainly, there are times when I wonder why we are still members,” she said.

The synagogue is more than its rabbi, in Pildes’ mind, and she has decades-long friendships with other members.

“There is a community here, which Brant had very little to do with creating and which we are loath to abandon,” she said. “Plus, to put it bluntly, if we and those who feel like we do quit, we would leave Brant with a bigger platform, and there would be no one left in the JRC community to counterbalance his views on Israel.”

Other congregants are more comfortable with a rabbi whose Facebook profile cover photo is a picture he took of a vaulted ceiling at a mosque in Esfahan, Iran, during a 2008 trip. Over coffee at Starbucks in 2011, Rosen told one congregant that he intended to take vacation days to fulfill a dream of participating in an olive harvest at a Palestinian village in the Israeli-occupied West Bank. She told him that if he was serious about taking the congregation on his journey, he had to do so literally.

On the trip, Rosen took congregants to the Deheishe refugee camp, just outside Jerusalem — where they stayed in people’s homes — and to the West Bank Palestinian town of Jenin. They also saw up close the barrier that Israel has constructed to separate its population from the West Bank. Israel states that it built the wall for security reasons, but the barrier also juts deep into the occupied territory at points, to encircle exclusively Jewish settlements there, absorbing land and separating Palestinian farmers from their own land at times. The group also attended a nonviolent rally in East Jerusalem.

“We did a lot of stuff that congregants don’t usually do with their rabbis,” Rosen said. “It was the most gratifying moment of my career, because they were willing to go with me.”

But if Rosen has led some of his congregants to new Holy Land territories, there has been a symbiotic balance, he said. In that same busy year, 2008, the synagogue was constructing a new building, and its environmental task force lobbied for a green building. “I didn’t even know what LEED certification was,” Rosen admitted, referring to the U.S. Green Building Council’s protocol for grading the environmental footprint of buildings. Although JRC aimed for Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design gold, its new building — $9 million according to Chicago magazine—did better: platinum. “We are all still blinking our eyes,” Rosen said.

Africa also didn’t occupy a significant position on his radar when Rosen came to Evanston, but he has been to the continent three times with JRC’s global AIDS task force.

Learning from his community and working face to face with people in the real world are a couple of the reasons that Rosen says he wouldn’t choose full-time activism, which he clearly enjoys, over the pulpit.

“I’m a people person, and my day-to-day work is with people, and that’s what I love about my work,” he said. “I think I would lose that if I became an executive director of a solidarity organization.”

Contact Menachem Wecker at feedback@forward.com


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