Why Millennials flock to Chicago’s non-Zionist synagogue
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Why Millennials flock to Chicago’s non-Zionist synagogue

For its 300 new members, trendy Lincoln Square's Tzedek congregation is a way to be Jewish -- without compromising their devotion to social justice values

Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, speaks at a Black lives matter rally. (IIRON)
Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, speaks at a Black lives matter rally. (IIRON)

CHICAGO — Anna Goldberger, a social worker in her 30s with dark hair and dark intelligent eyes, is looking for a community of Jewish people who reflect her own Jewish social justice values.

But for Anna, there is one problem when she finds herself in a Jewish communal setting: Israel.

“When I spend time around other Jewish people, the topic of Israel feels like a hot coal no one wants to touch. If it comes up, there’s always a risk of heated disagreement, hurt feelings, and damage to relationships,” she says.

That’s why Anna is so happy to have discovered Tzedek Chicago, a new self-described “non-Zionist” congregation located in Chicago’s trendy Lincoln Square neighborhood, home to many young families.

Rabbi Brant Rosen founded the congregation this past summer after resigning in 2014 from his post of 17 years at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation (JRC) in Evanston, Illinois.

Rabbi Brant Rosen founded the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago after 17 years of leading a Reconstructionist synagogue. (David Sutton)
Rabbi Brant Rosen founded the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago after 17 years of leading a Reconstructionist synagogue. (David Sutton)

The synagogue’s functions are sporadic: Shabbat services and Torah study take place in the basement of a Lutheran Church and occur once a month on average, as does a potluck Shabbat dinner hosted at members’ homes. But for its 300 members, the majority of whom are single Millennials, Tzedek feels like an ideological home, a way to be Jewish without compromising their devotion to social justice values.

“I think anyone who comes to either a service or a program at Tzedek Chicago will see that we’re first and foremost a Jewish community,” Rabbi Rosen tells The Times of Israel. “We just happen to be an intentional Jewish community. That is, we’re founded on a common set of shared values – values of justice, anti-racism and universalism. We seek a Judaism that finds common cause with all who are oppressed around the world, including Palestinians.”

Asked what it means to be “non-Zionist,” Rabbi Rosen says, “Let me read from our core values: ‘While we appreciate the important role of the Land of Israel in Jewish tradition, liturgy and identity, we do not celebrate the fusing of Judaism with political nationalism. We are non-Zionist, openly acknowledging that the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people – an injustice that continues to this day.’”

In the pursuit of social justice

On a Sunday afternoon in January, I visit the church where Tzedek Chicago is housed to attend the annual Tu Bishvat Seder, a ritualized meal that marks the traditional Festival of Trees.

Entering the church I hear lively chatter occurring downstairs and follow it. Warmly greeted by a woman named Anita, I’m told the seder is about to begin and urged to quickly take a seat at any one of the tables.

I notice an empty seat at an intergenerational table and grab it. To my left, there is an elderly woman with numerous Bernie Sanders political buttons on her coat lapel, a 60ish intermarried couple, a hip millennial blogger and a pregnant woman in her 30s.

Throughout the seder there are numerous discussion periods. Breaking the initial silence during the first, Brian Carson, the sole man at the table addresses the woman with Sanders’ pins. “Hi Bernie, nice to meet you,” he states humorously as she glares back at him blankly. Everyone bursts into laughter and ardent conversation ensues. The hottest topic of discussion, however, is the current rhetoric regarding immigrants in the US, especially that of Republican hopeful Donald Trump.

‘We have to stand in solitary against bigotry’

“We have to stand in solitary against bigotry,” stresses the millennial among us as others at the table nod in agreement.

Brian and Wendy Carson spoke about their work with the Chicago-based Interfaith Committee for Detained Immigrants that advocates immigration reform and refugee assistance.

“As Jews,” explained Brian, “we are commanded to hate oppression, to welcome the stranger, to treat everyone with dignity, to love our neighbors. Everybody either came here by choice or coercion, or have ancestors who did.”

In fact, Tzedek Chicago held a benefit concert in November that raised $7,000 for Syrian Refugee Relief.

“[It] was a great example of the value of interfaith collaboration,” says Rabbi Rosen proudly. “In this case it was particularly meaningful because the concert took place the night of the tragic attacks in Paris. In the midst of such a painful time, it was particularly healing to attend a concert by a Muslim ensemble, sponsored by a Jewish synagogue, which took place in a Lutheran church.”

Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, and members of the congregation perform 'havdalah' at a Jewish Voice for Peace rally. (JVP Chicago)
Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, and members of the congregation perform ‘havdalah’ at a Jewish Voice for Peace rally. (JVP Chicago)

Other topics of discussion at the seder include talk of local activism by Tzedek members. The involvement of some with the Chicago Teachers Union who have been pushing to get an elected school board in the nation’s third-largest school district, as well as another small group that spearheaded a two-year effort to get a much needed hospital trauma center in a high crime area of the city’s south side.

“Contrary to what many people may be saying about us, the congregation is not established on one issue alone but has become a ‘home’ for people of progressive leanings” – whatever that may mean these days, quips, Brian — “who are involved in quite a broad spectrum of concerns from health and education to LGBT and environmental issues.”

‘The congregation is not established on one issue alone but has become a “home” for people of progressive leanings’

Asked about Israel, Tzedek congregants recognize the importance of the Land of Israel to Judaism, yet express dismay at having had to park their feelings and opinions about the state of Israel at synagogue doors and in their private reams. The young blogger recounts how she was unfriended by family and friends after expressing agreement with an article written by Noam Chomsky that she posted on her Facebook page.

Such feelings of exclusion are what propelled Rosen to establish the left-of-center non-Zionist synagogue.

“Most American liberal congregations are not particularly hospitable for those who don’t identify with Israel or are disturbed by its oppression of Palestinians, or who are actually troubled by the very concept of a Jewish state itself,” he says. “It’s very difficult for such Jews to find a community where they are able to their values openly and freely.”

The Carsons, founding members of Tzedek Chicago, inform me that they adamantly insisted on the term “non-Zionist,” versus “anti-Zionist.” When asked why, Brian responded forthrightly, “I can’t be ‘anti-Israel.’ Is it to say that every person there has no love, no sense of justice, no desire for peace?”

The problem with Zionism

The Los Angeles native Rabbi Brant Rosen, 53, is an outspoken critic of the Israeli occupation of Palestine. In 2010, he co-founded the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council, a group that promotes boycotts of Israel and has been listed by the Anti-Defamation League as one of the top 10 anti-Israel organizations in the US.

Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, speaks at a rally. (IIRON)
Rabbi Brant Rosen, founder the non-Zionist Tzedek Chicago synagogue, speaks at a rally. (IIRON)

Rosen’s steadfast criticism of Israel, especially after the 2008-9 Gaza War, along with his fervent participation at pro-Palestinian protests throughout Chicago came to alienate several members of his former congregation at JRC and eventually led to his resignation.

Today, Rosen is employed both as Tzedek Chicago’s spiritual leader and as the Midwest Regional Director of the American Friends Service Committee.

The natural question is how did Rosen, a rabbi who lived most of his life identifying very strongly with Israel and even considered making aliyah at one point in his life, come to break with Zionism?

The former self-described “liberal Zionist” replies candidly, “My relationship with Israel has evolved during the course of my life. But in the end, I think the basic reason I finally broke with Zionism is when I came to accept that Jewish ethnic nation-statism is inherently problematic.

“When you have a form of nationalism whose existence is predicated on the demographic majority of one particular people, then ipso facto people who are not part of that demographic will be viewed as a problem to be dealt with. They’re seen as ‘other’ – as a threat. Liberal Zionists often argue for the importance of a two-state solution by claiming that the Palestinian birthrate represents a ‘demographic threat’ to Israel. But in any other context, I think liberals would consider such a statement to be thoroughly racist,” says Rosen.

Enquiring why Rosen and its founding members chose to name the congregation Tzedek – meaning justice – he says matter-of-factly, “Because justice is really the founding value of our community. I also believe that it’s a very central aspect of Jewish tradition.

‘I do believe in this day and age most American Jews are part of the white, privileged majority in this country’

“I think we often pay lip service to justice and like to think that as Jews we naturally support social justice. But I think people who are privileged and part of a power structure define justice one way while those who are oppressed and vulnerable under the heel of the powers that be define it otherwise,” says Rosen.

“I do believe in this day and age most American Jews are part of the white, privileged majority in this country. While we often invoke Jewish participation in the labor and civil rights movement, for instance, I don’t think we’ve fully faced the way we’re now part of infrastructural systems of injustice, both here in our country or in Israel/Palestine,” he says.

Rosen has endured an onslaught of criticism for his views on Israel/Palestine, which he publicly expresses on his blog Shalom Rav. Among those speaking against Rosen is Rabbi Joshua Weinberg, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America.

“Why would someone want to define a community by what you’re ‘not’?” Weinberg told Al-Jazeera recently. “I think Rosen’s issue is that he basically took the point of view that he really didn’t think that the State of Israel should exist. That, for me and most mainstream Jews, is crossing the line.”

Jewish Voice for Peace members during a July 19, 2014 anti-Israel gathering in Boston. JVP has funded and advised Students for Justice in Palestine chapters for many years. (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)
Jewish Voice for Peace members during a July 19, 2014 anti-Israel gathering in Boston. JVP has funded and advised Students for Justice in Palestine chapters for many years. (Elan Kawesch/The Times of Israel)

Asked how he deals with such criticism, Rosen replies, “Israel/Palestine is a very passionate issue for Jews – I like to call it the ‘third rail’ of the Jewish community. I know that for some I’ve stepped firmly on it in a very public way and I know it pushes lots of buttons for many people. As a rabbi, I don’t believe my job is to simply make everybody happy and avoid criticism. I’ve tried to stay true to the old adage, ‘comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.’”

Merely a new trend?

Are the folks at Tzedek Chicago as non-conformist as they think? Do they truly have more of a monopoly on social justice than other Jews?

In a recent op-ed in the New York Times, leftist columnist Roger Cohen criticizes what he describes as a new anti-Israel Orthodoxy on the left.

‘Jews, it seems, are the sole historical victim whose claim is dubious’

“The zeitgeist on campuses these days, on both sides of the Atlantic, is one of identity and liberation politics. Jews, of course, are a minority, but through a fashionable cultural prism they are seen as the minority that isn’t — that is to say white, privileged and identified with an ‘imperialist-colonialist’ state, Israel. They are the anti-victims in a prevalent culture of victimhood; Jews, it seems, are the sole historical victim whose claim is dubious,” writes Cohen.

A recent Oberlin alumna, Isabel Storch Sherrell, wrote in a Facebook post of the students she’d heard dismissing the Holocaust as mere “white on white crime.” As reported by David Bernstein in The Washington Post, she wrote of Jewish students, “Our struggle does not intersect with other forms of racism.”

Given such views, is Tzedek Chicago part of a growing trend? Will more and more Jews, particularly millennials, find that Israel and their leftist views are incompatible and feel that the mainstream Jewish community has nothing to offer them?

‘Are you in favor of democracy? Then you should be a supporter of Israel’

Bret Stephens at the Wall Street Journal sees this trend on the American left as horribly misguided. As he told The Jerusalem Post earlier this year, “[Those] who are concerned about social justice in Israel, the Palestinian Authority and the Muslim world [should be asked] the following questions: Are you in favor of women’s rights? Are you in favor of freedom of the press? Are you in favor of religious tolerance? Are you in favor of gay rights? Are you in favor of freedom of speech? Are you in favor of democracy? Then you should be a supporter of Israel.”

Yet allegiance to Israel takes a back seat to Judaism, wider social justice issues, and the “occupation” at Tzedek Chicago.

Potential congregant Anna Goldberger summed up its appeal in the following way: “My desire is to see more Jewish community involvement in a variety of causes — not just Israel-related issues.

“What I perceive to be complacency among mainstream Jewish communities breaks my heart. It’s a departure from what I see as core Jewish values. Tzedek Chicago understands this and, from what I can tell as a prospective member, intends to get involved in many worthy causes,” says Goldberger.

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