In Chicago, a new synagogue seeks Judaism minus Zionism

Rabbi Brant Rosen, center left, speaks during a Moral Monday's demonstration in Chicago, Ill. in August 2105. Photo by Tom Gaulke
Rabbi Brant Rosen, center left, speaks during a Moral Monday's demonstration in Chicago, Ill. in August 2105. Photo by Tom Gaulke

Rabbi Brant Rosen, center left, speaks during a Moral Monday’s demonstration in Chicago, Ill. in August 2105. Photo by Tom Gaulke

(RNS) An Israeli flag next to the rabbi’s podium, a synagogue-wide Israel Independence Day celebration, a prayer for the state of Israel during services — for many, these are innocuous if not positive parts of American Jewish congregational life.

For Rabbi Brant Rosen and his future congregants at Tzedek Chicago, a new synagogue that identifies as non-Zionist, these are symbols of a nationalism-infused Judaism, which he thinks is not only unnecessary but harmful.

“We believe that that’s led to some very dark places and that the establishment of an exclusively Jewish nation-state in a land that has historically been multiethnic and multireligious has led irrevocably to the tragic issues that we’re facing today,” Rosen said.

READ: Reform Jewish movement declines to take a stance on Iran nuclear deal

The synagogue’s non-Zionism, he said, is about “bearing witness to oppression, particularly when it’s being done in our name as Americans and as Jews.”

A nondenominational synagogue with a focus on social activism, Tzedek Chicago will officially open in September with the start of the High Holidays and will share facilities with Luther Memorial Church in Chicago. The congregation is arguably the first American synagogue to self identify as non-Zionist in its mission statement.

Rosen, who served as rabbi of the mainstream Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, thought he’d retired from pulpit work. But people sought him out to discuss creating a new congregation.

“There are increasing numbers of Jews out there, particularly young Jews, who don’t identify as Zionist and resent the implication that somehow to be Jewish today one must be Zionist,” said Rosen, who previously co-founded the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Jewish Voice for Peace is an American Jewish organization opposed to Israeli military presence in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.

“We are really a community for Jews who don’t reduce their Judaism to narrow political nationalism. As far as I know there aren’t any other congregations out there who describe themselves in those terms.”

So far, the congregation has approximately 85 members, from millennials to older adults, Rosen said.

For some, such as steering committee member Mark Miller, the synagogue is a welcome development.

READ: No Jews and Zionists allowed!

“For those of us who are progressives and really have problems with the human rights abuses and other problems we see in modern-day Israel, this is a way for us to take a step away from that and have a congregation that is not aligned,” Miller said.

Rosen has experienced a swell of support but also some pushback from the wider Jewish community.

“I think you cannot cut off Israel from Judaism,” said Rabbi Josh Weinberg, president of the Association of Reform Zionists of America. Weinberg grew up in Chicago and taught in a high school program with Rosen in 2002. “The word ‘Judaism’ was the religious affiliation of the people who lived in the land of Judea. All of our Jewish expression,  Jewish identity, everything we say in our prayer books is all geared towards Israel, our nationalist existence in a particular geographic location.”

For Weinberg, the state of Israel is a central component of Jewish identity and connects American Jews to a sense of peoplehood.

“Does that mean that, just because we have a spiritual and a covenental relationship with the state of Israel, that we always have to agree with everything the state of Israel does politically? No, far from it,” he said. “But I want (improving Israel) to be a project all Jews around the world participate in. And to hear about a synagogue that’s trying to cut off those ties because of politics or policies is sad to me.”

But is Tzedek Chicago an outlier on the fringe of mainstream American Judaism or the first manifestation of a growing trend?

Theodore Sasson, senior research scientist at Brandeis University’s Center for Modern Jewish Studies, noted that Jewish non-Zionism isn’t new. Ultra-Orthodox sects such as Satmar or Neturei Karta have long been ideologically opposed to the state of Israel, based on their belief that a Jewish nation-state should only exist when the messiah comes.

Similarly, many liberal Jews were non-nationalist before Israel’s founding in 1948. After that, the majority of Jews identified as pro-Israel, Sasson said.

So, if Tzedek Chicago represents a change, it’s not the emergence of Jewish non-Zionism in America but the growth of liberal Jewish non-Zionism. But even that, according to Sasson, is not the main trend Tzedek Chicago symbolizes.

READ: Museum of the Bible allies with Israeli antiquities agency

Rather, the synagogue is one example of the plurality and diversity of U.S.  Jewish voices, particularly in relation to Israel, said Sasson.

He stressed that despite the widening spectrum of Jewish public opinion, the majority of Jews hold various political positions within a pro-Israel framework. According to the most recent Pew Research Center study on American Jews, in 2013, 7 out of 10 Jewish Americans feel some level of attachment to Israel, which has remained consistent since 2000.

“There is not a flight from Israel among American Jews,” said Sasson. “My impression is that Israel continues to serve as a focal point for Jewish identity in the United States, even if increasingly that means that Israel serves as something to argue about.”

Zionist Organization of America President Morton Klein dismissed the emergence of one non-Zionist synagogue as significant.

Statistically, he said, “they don’t exist.”

While Rosen would likely beg to differ and expects to see more congregations like Tzedek Chicago pop up, he’s unconcerned with the niche quality of the new synagogue. “We don’t expect to be for everyone,” he said.

Rosen is concerned that Tzedek Chicago will be pigeonholed as “the non-Zionist synagogue,” when that issue is only a fraction of what the synagogue hopes to stand for, he said.

“We espouse the vision that’s deep within Jewish tradition that stands for freeing and standing with the oppressed and standing up against the oppressor,” said Rosen. “We founded the congregation because we wanted to espouse what many of us believe are some of the central, most sacred values of Jewish tradition.”


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Sara Weissman


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  • I have brotherly love for people of all races, cultures and nations, just as Yeshua (Jesus) and Yahweh (Jehovah), his Father, does.

  • Rosen’s suggestion that supporters of Israel adhere to “narrow political nationalism” is offensive and tone-deaf. It’s like you’re either with Rosen, or you’re with the killers of Ali Dawabsheh. It’s a false choice. I also am concerned with the many human-rights abuses and other problems in Israel today and I consider myself an ardent Zionist. If he’s concerned about the “many dark places of history,” he should consider what has happened historically to the Jews in the absence of a national home.

  • Will they rewrite the Torah to delete every reference to the promised land? A community based on self-righteousness rather than faith and tradition has no chance of long-term survival. jmtc

  • In the article the following is written “who previously co-founded the Jewish Voice for Peace Rabbinical Council. Jewish Voice for Peace is an American Jewish organization opposed to Israeli military presence in the West Bank, the Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem.” What a ridiculous lie about this anti-Zionist, anti-Israel and often anti-Semitic group. Regardless if there are Jews involved it’s support of the BDS movement only confirms their real intent. The Rabbi has every right to profess his dislike for the Jewish state just like some of the Charedi ultra orthodox sects. But to insinuate that “Jewish voice for Peace” is a concerned parve organization truly expresses “yellow” journalism at its best.

  • Garson, right on! Rabbi Rosen refers to Israel as an “exclusively Jewish nation-state.” It is a Jewish nation-state (the only one), but it is not exclusively Jewish — 20% of the population is non-Jewish.

  • Thank you Rabbi Rosen and your congregants at Tzedek. I have found it very difficult to have conversations with Jews that are very affirming of their faith tradition without an undercurrent of fear and defensiveness. May your tribe increase; and may we all continue to struggle with making a very difficult peace.

  • Of course, even apart from their rejection of Israel, their style of religion pretty much rejects the Torah as well — leaving little left other than social justice concerns, which are not the exclusive preserve of any one religion.

  • I wonder how one can simultaneously accept and reject a faith tradition. I suppose the answer is to reject the real thing and substitute it with something else while retaining the original name and a few of its trappings.

  • How “self-righteous” for a Zionist to assert that the Jews have a right to return to their homeland and establish sovereignty there.

    How “self-righteous” for an Italian to assert that Italy is his or her homeland.

    How “self-righteous” for a Norwegian to assert that Norway is his or her homeland.

    Perry Weiner, grow up.

  • Perry, you remind me of what someone once said about the French philosophe, Rousseau:

    “He loved humanity and hated people.”

    You can’t have a true love of humanity if you hate particular groupings of people — families and nations.

  • It’s really more of a branding issue. They shouldn’t really be so enamored of calling themselves Judaism. I can recommend several Protestant churches that would embrace whatever it is Rabbi Rosen is talking about. Perhaps they can call themselves that instead.

  • A core element of Jewish faith is the belief that the Land of Israel is God-given. To deny the right to live there, the obligation to live there, and the connection of all Jews to the Land of Israel is to deny a fundamental element of Judaism and to make such a group as marginal and irrelevant to Jewish life as are the Indonesian Karaite LGBTs

  • Bravo to Rabbi Rosen for adding a fresh perspective on things and bringing a respectful, well-informed voice to the dialogue. I’m also glad to see those who disagree, like Rabbi Weinberg, commenting on the situation, instead of just refusing to say anything. It’s nice to have some dialogue, instead of just dismissing this viewpoint and ignoring it.

  • The Jews of Germany and Austria were the most assimilated Jews in the world. We know what happened to them. Zionism is necessary to preserve the Jewish people. I can live in America because Israel exists.

    It is just not correct that Zionists limit their Judaism to narrow political nationalism. One can be a Zionist and a spiritual Jew committed to social justice all at the same time.

  • I feel very saddened by once again with a discussion about the many feelings and attitude toward Israel Human Rights and who is a good Jew and bad Jew being thrown around once again. I am a very proud member of Tzedek and a very proud Jew. When I first became involved in this new Congregation it was because there was no where else that seemed to take up the question of Human Rights for all in the way I wanted the experience to myself and my family until I was given this opportunity to become part of a growing movement of expressing my firm beief in being a Jew along with my lifelong struggle for Human Rights. What I see happening here is the same reason I could not find a fit for myself before. I am not sure what Non Zionism means exactly but what I do know is that the Government of Israel has become a Government of Destruction. Human Rights should be the calling card for all Jews. With that said I proudly stand with others and become part of anew Congregation Tzedek.

  • Wendy, please explain why Israel must be sacrificed on the altar of
    “human rights.” You don’t believe that any other nation doesn’t belong on the map. Why do you believe that about Israel?

  • It is perfectly possible to be for human rights and support Israel’s existence. Israel is a democracy. It is far from perfect, but it can be changed. Wendy, you would be doing much more to help human rights if you supported Israeli groups that are trying to change things.

  • Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, formerly the Chief Rabbi of Britain, once said that anti-Semitism throughout history often mimics the moral language of the time. Today, the moral language is that of human rights — thus today, Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people is attacked as a supremely egregious human rights violator. Even though the charge is bogus, it is made anyway, because it relies on a wellspring of Jew-hatred that never seems to subside fully.

    What is especially pathetic is when individual Jews start internalizing the lies told by those who so obviously hate them.