Chicago Rabbi Quits Synagogue After pro-Palestine Stance Creates Tension

Dovish views on Israel increasingly dangerous for rabbis to discuss, experts say - 'chilling effect’ of Gaza operation.

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Rabbi Brant Rosen in front of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois.
Rabbi Brant Rosen in front of the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois.Credit: M. Spencer Green

NEW YORK – When Rabbi Brant Rosen sent an email to congregants at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation of Evanston, Illinois, on Tuesday announcing that he is quitting the congregation he has lead for the past 17 years, it didn’t come as much of a surprise to those in the community.

After all Rosen, 51, has been taking increasingly vocal pro-Palestinian positions — which even he acknowledges are radical — over the past several years. He marched in pro-Palestine solidarity rallies down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue at the height of the operation in Gaza this summer and in 2010 co-founded the rabbinical council at Jewish Voice for Peace, a pro-BDS group which the ADL calls one of the top 10 anti-Israel organizations in the country. His activism was causing mounting tension at his synagogue in suburban Chicago, and that began taking a personal toll.

There is little doubt that Rosen’s aggressively pro-Palestine views put him on the far left edge of the spectrum of views compared to nearly every other rabbi, no matter how liberal. But saying anything regarded as remotely pro-Palestinian has become dangerous terrain for any rabbi to explore. In the wake of the Gaza war, the American Jewish community has become more bifurcated than ever: either you are unquestioningly pro-Israel or you are considered anti-Israel. Even expressing sorrow for the deaths of innocents in the Gaza operation is today considered controversial.

Rabbi Sharon Kleinbaum of Congregation Beth Simchat Torah, New York’s gay and lesbian synagogue, experienced that first-hand after she read aloud the names of Palestinian children killed during the Gaza war along with those of Israeli casualties at a recent prayer service. She was met with intense criticism although, she is quick to acknowledge, that she also received an outpouring of support from congregants. A member of the congregation’s board of directors resigned, as did two other synagogue members, she said in an interview from Israel, where she came to recharge her spiritual batteries before Rosh Hashana.

In December 2012 the rabbis of Congregation B’nai Jeshurun, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, were stunned by the pushback they got from some congregants — as well as coverage on the front page of The New York Times — after sending out a note supporting the Palestinian bid to upgrade its status at the UN The longest-serving rabbi at BJ, Rolando Matalon, did not respond to messages seeking his perspective.

As rabbis begin preparing their High Holy Day sermons — when more congregants will hear them speak than at any other time of the year — they are surely cognizant of the increasingly sensitized environment.

Last year the Jewish Council on Public Affairs published a study looking at how free American rabbis feel to express their true feelings about Israel. Titled “Reluctant or Repressed? Aversion to Expressing Views on Israel Among American Rabbis,” it found that in the preceding three years nearly half of the rabbis reported refraining from voicing their true opinions on Israel. Twenty one percent said they feared “significant professional repercussions” if they were to do so. Many more who the study characterized as “doves”– 43 percent – were very fearful compared to those considered “hawks” on Israel – 25 percent.

Steven M. Cohen, a co-author of that study and a professor at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, said in an interview that “after the Gaza war, American Jewry is much more divided around Israel than it was before. Both doves and hawks believe their views have been confirmed. The tone of conversations on the Internet and in synagogue boardrooms has become much more vituperative and much less forgiving.”

Rosen’s personal pro-Palestine activism began in 2008, during Operation Cast Lead. “I was very open and public about my anguish about outrages being committed. After that I went down a different road. I gradually became a Palestine solidarity activist rather than liberal Zionist,” Rosen told Haaretz in an interview.

He began publishing his thoughts on two blogs, “Shalom Rav,” which contains his thoughts on Israel/Palestine and “Yedid Nefesh,” which is devoted to his poetry, much of it also focused on Israel/Palestine. A poem on the latter blog, written during the war, is titled “Psalm 80: The Strangled Vine.” It begins: “how long will
/this people be wrathful,/
this nation that feasts
/on the tears of its own trauma
/so that it might strike out
/again and again
/against enemies real and imagined?”

On Shalom Rav, just before Tisha B’Av this summer he published his version of Lamentations, the liturgy that traditionally commemorates the destruction of Jerusalem. Titled “A Lamentation for Gaza,” it begins: “Gaza weeps alone./
Bombs falling without end
/her cheeks wet with tears./
A widow abandoned
/imprisoned on all sides
/with none willing to save her./We who once knew oppression/
have become the oppressors.
/Those who have been pursued/
are now the pursuers./
We have uprooted families
/from their homes, we have
/driven them deep into
/this desolate place,
/this narrow strip of exile.”

In 2012 he co-authored a Passover haggadah for JVP, which includes his piece on “the 10 plagues of the occupation.”

“My activism has become a very important part of my own rabbinate and conscience,” Rosen told Haaretz. A few years ago the synagogue’s board of directors asked him to keep his personal activism separate from his work as the congregation’s rabbi. “At JRC Brant did a good job of being apolitical from the bimah,” said David Tabak, the synagogue’s president, in an interview.

Rosen’s personal tipping point came in May, when congregants from about 25 member households sent a letter to the entire congregation saying that his pro-Palestine activism was interfering with his work as their rabbi.

A congregant told the Chicago Tribune this week that "Rabbi Rosen's public and extreme political views divided the congregation when he should have brought the congregation together for respectful discussion.”

Rosen heard about the planned letter “when it was brewing,” he said. “It took me by surprise,” he told Haaretz. There was a board meeting about it open to the entire congregation, where some angry congregants aired their views. The board acknowledged the concerns but stood by Rosen, saying as long as he was fulfilling his professional duties they had no reason to censure him.

The war in Gaza this summer only heightened things further, Tabak said. “Obviously the situation in Gaza just accentuated all those emotions. Ultimately it brought a lot of simmering issues to the fore.”

Rabbi Arthur Waskow, a veteran leader of the progressive Jewish community, said that he was pushed out of several organizations for his pro-peace views over the years, including a teaching position at the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College in 1989 after he was critical of the Israeli government’s response to the first Intifada. “I’ve learned over the years that even a minority in a congregation if it’s angry enough can push for silence or wobbliness on the part of leaders like rabbis,” said Waskow, the founder and director of the Shalom Center, and a co-founder of Aleph: Alliance for Jewish Renewal, in an interview.

At the Evanston synagogue “the upset has continued despite everyone’s best intentions, said Rosen. “I’m starting to see fissures and it’s affecting my own wellbeing too.” He has faced many sleepless nights and jokingly offered to send a reporter his therapist’s notes. “I don’t think it’s fair to JRC or to me for me to continue, which is why I made the decision to resign,” he said. “It’s very hard to know, as a rabbi, that I’m hurting members of my own congregation.”

Between 10 and 20 households have left the congregation as a result of his pro-Palestine work over the years though there has been a recent uptick, Rosen said, and a few others have also joined because of it.

In the wake of the Gaza war “a lot of rabbis are really concerned about speaking out about Israel-Palestine. There’s a kind of loyalty oath or litmus test that a lot of people feel,” Kleinbaum said.

“Israel has always been the third rail for rabbis,” Rosen told Haaretz. “As a new generation of rabbis coming up who don’t necessarily share the assumptions about Israel that former generations did it’s becoming more difficult, absolutely.”

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