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New Chicago Congregation Seeks to Separate Judaism from Jewish Nationalism

Allan C. Brownfeld, Editor
Special Interest Report
December 2015

A new congregation, Tzedek Chicago, has been established which, reports the  
Chicago Tribune (Sept. 11, 2015), “seeks to separate their Judaism from  
Jewish political nationalism. Instead, they hope to focus their energy and  
efforts on relieving poverty, engendering equality and fostering peace and  
justice both locally and worldwide.”  
“Our vision is not opposing Zionism,” said Rabbi Brant Rosen, who left his  
longtime Evanston synagogue last year amid what the Tribune called “growing  
concern about his pro-Palestinian activism.” According to Rosen, “It’s a  
core value that fits into a larger core value of anti-racism and anti-  
oppression. We point that out because Israel is doing it in our name as  
According to the Tribune, “The emergence of Tzedek Chicago underscores the  
growing rift in the American Jewish community over the Middle East conflict,  
the nuclear accord with Iran and more broadly the concept of inclusion.  
Founders hope that by opening the doors during the Jewish High Holy Days, a  
time for reflection and atonement, Jews across the spectrum will find a  
sanctuary where they can openly contemplate nagging questions and unpopular  
views about the Holy Land.”  
Lynn Pollack, one of the founding members of Tzedek Chicago, says, “There  
are many congregations that you can go to where the blind support of Israel  
is so endemic to the whole institution. You can’t find one that honestly  
discusses what’s going on in Israel and our obligation to speak out about  
The Tribune discusses the evolution of Reform Judaism from being highly  
critical of Zionism to slowly embracing it, and highlights the role of the  
American Council for Judaism in keeping the classical Reform Jewish  
philosophy alive: “A synagogue that does not champion Israel as a Jewish  
homeland might seem incongruous, but Rosen and his congregants insist  
Zionism and Judaism don’t go hand in hand. After millions of European Jews  
had perished in the Holocaust in the 1940s, leaders of the American Reform  
movement first adopted a pro-Zionist stance … but not all American Jews felt  
that way. Chicago’s Lessing Rosenwald, former chairman of Sears Roebuck &  
Co., helped found the anti-Zionist association, the American Council for  
Judaism, that still exists today … For Rosen, who grew up in the Reform  
movement in Los Angeles, Israel was a central part of his Jewish identity …  
He lived on kibbutzim for 2 years and in his early 20s considered moving  
there permanently. He chose to pursue ordin¬ation in the Reconstructionist  
movement, where he found his spiritual home. Reconstructionism teaches that  
God is a life force that inspires everyone to make the world a better place.  
In 1992 he was ordained and in 1998 became spiritual leader of the Jewish  
Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston. He fought hard for a peaceful  
two-state solution between Israel and the Palestinians. But he also harbored  
doubts about his Zionist identity.”  
Rosen recalls that, “As a peace activist in this country I would habitually  
let Israel off the hook.” He notes that in meetings, he and his fellow  
Zionists often referred to the Palestinian birthrate as a demographic  
threat, a mantra he realized over time was unconscionable. “If I talked  
about people here in the U.S. being a demographic threat, that would be  
considered downright racist. To treat a group of people as a threat for no  
other reason than their identity, that’s ethically problematic.”  
In Dec. 2008, shortly after Israel launched a military campaign in Gaza,  
Rosen wrote on his blog Shalom Rav: “We good liberal Jews are ready to  
protest oppression and human rights abuse anywhere in the world, but are all  
too willing to give Israel a pass. It’s a fascinating double standard and  
one I under¬stand all too well. I understand it because I’ve been just as  
responsible as anyone else for perpetrating it.”  
In 2009, he and another rabbi organized a community fast to protest Israel’s  
blockade of Gaza. And on Yom Kippur of that year, Rosen called on the  
faithful to do more than fast but also to reflect on Israel’s military  
actions. “For, painful as it is for us to admit, Israel’s behavior in Gaza  
has consistently betrayed our shared Jewish ethical legacy.”  
Concerning Tzedek Chicago, he says: “I really believe in my heart that  
there’s a place for a congregation like this. I’m hoping to create a model  
that I believe serves a significant portion of the Jewish community, that  
has previously been unheard and unserved … We allow them to connect Jewishly  
in ways that they haven’t been able to. •

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