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First US congregation known to formally take such a stance

Preaching to the margins: Chicago synagogue adopts anti-Zionism as a ‘core value’

Tzedek’s rabbi Brant Rosen says he doesn’t think move will shift mainstream US Jewry, but insists there’s space for a synagogue anchored in belief that Judaism belongs in Diaspora

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

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

CHICAGO — The Tzedek Chicago synagogue has voted to adopt anti-Zionism as a “core value,” becoming the first American congregation known to officially take such a stance.

The membership of Tzedek, a non-denominational congregation founded in 2015, voted last week to pass the measure. The synagogue’s 12-member board unanimously approved the decision in December.

“Jews have a moral precept of pursuing justice and standing in solidarity with the oppressed,” said Tzedek rabbi Brant Rosen, arguing that anti-Zionism is an extension of that effort during an interview on Sunday with The Times of Israel.

Seventy-two percent of Tzedek’s members backed the decision, with the remainder accepting the move and choosing to remain a part of the community, while a handful of American Jews reached out in order to join upon learning of the vote, Rosen said. There are around 200 families in the congregation.

The vote represents further proof that there is demand for such religious institutions in the American Jewish community, Rosen said.

Virtually all synagogues in the US are Zionist by default, given their affiliation with the various major denominations that back the Jewish state to varying degrees. A handful of congregations do identify as non-Zionist in an effort to create space for pro-Palestinian activism, which has been increasingly popular among young, liberal Jews. But these communities are small and marginalized by mainstream Jewish organizations, which view a connection to the Jewish state as an essential part of the Jewish identity.

 

The ultra-Orthodox Satmar sect, which has tens of thousands of members in the US, goes a step further in its opposition to Zionism, believing that a Jewish sovereign power may only rule in the land of Israel upon the return of the Messiah. The Satmars still enjoy a degree of interaction with mainstream Jewish organizations, as opposed to the fringe Neturei Karta group, which is more active in its anti-Israel efforts.

Those groups hold anti-Zionist religious beliefs, but they are not individual congregations, and don’t make decisions regarding their principles in the manner that Tzedek did last week.

Naturei Karta members protest against Prime Minister Naftali Bennett outside the United Nations while Bennett gave a speech inside, in New York City, September 27, 2021. (Luke Tress/Flash90)

Reactions to Tzedek’s announcement seem to be far more virulent than responses to the ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists, with prominent pro-Israel voices weighing in on the decision with varying degrees of scorn.

One Jewish Federations executive said that their chapter has until now sought to “avoid giving [Tzedek] any oxygen” by issuing public responses to various anti-Israel steps it has taken. But they acknowledged that the most recent decision “may not be something we can ignore.”

Israeli Council General to the Midwest Yinam Cohen, meanwhile, was eager to speak out against the Tzedek decision.

“Make no mistake. What they say has nothing to do with Israel’s policies. It’s about Israel’s mere existence as a Jewish and democratic state. To them, the Jewish people are the only people in the world who don’t deserve their own state,” he told The Times of Israel, calling Tzedek a “marginal voice” while thanking the broader Chicago Jewish community for its support of Israel.

Rosen said he “is under no illusions” that Tzedek’s decision will lead to a shift in the way the mainstream Jewish community relates to Israel, even in the long term.

He argued however that there’s still a desire for the space that his congregation is providing, particularly among young people “who aren’t being raised with the same relationship to Israel as their parents were” and are alienated by the current discourse in the American Jewish community.

Rosen has long held views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are outside of the mainstream, but he was trained in the Reconstructionist movement and led several Reconstructionist congregations throughout the US.

He left the last of those positions at the Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Illinois in 2014 over disagreements with some members of the congregations on his Israel views.

The decision by Tzedek members won’t have many practical implications as it has already been partner to a number of anti-Israel and pro-Palestinian coalitions and actions in the community. But Rosen said the statement against Zionism is important in its own right.

The Tzedek spiritual leader admitted there was concern among supporters and opponents alike within his community that the decision would lead to the synagogue being defined by what it is against as opposed to what it supports. However, Rosen insisted that actively supporting anti-Zionism is part of a broader set of values that are anchored in the idea that the “Diaspora is the locus of Jewish life.”

Pressed as to whether a Jewish sovereign state might be essential to protecting Jews amid past, present or future spikes in antisemitism, Rosen said that the establishment of the state of Israel has “exacerbated antisemitism in many ways.”

“I think it’s a misnomer to think that somehow you can just run to a country and build up your army and suddenly, the Jews of the world will be safe,” he said.

Particularly when that state “comes at the expense of another people,” which Rosen said is “enormously problematic.”

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

Despite his marginalization, Rosen said he still feels his community is part of “Am Yisrael,” the Jewish people.

He maintains that belief, even while also subscribing to the notion that some of those very same “family” members are engaged in the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians. At the same time, Rosen and Tzedek have signed on to Palestinian calls to boycott his figurative Israeli relatives.

“That’s what it means to be in a family. It includes people whose approach you very violently disagree with — and they feel the same way about us,” he said.

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