Sara Weissman | August 20, 2015
(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.
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.