Tzedek Chicago Is America’s First Anti-Zionist Synagogue

By | Apr 13, 2022
Jewish World, Latest
Rabbi Brant Rosen at Tzedek Chicago in 2019

Rather than embracing the words “Next year in Jerusalem,” a phrase traditionally used to conclude Passover seders, Tzedek Chicago believes in “diasporic consciousness,” the idea that the Jewish diaspora rather than Israel alone is the Jewish homeland. Now, Tzedek Chicago has become the first synagogue in the United States to officially designate itself as anti-Zionist.

Founded in 2015 by Rabbi Brant Rosen, Tzedek Chicago does not have a physical worship space. Instead, it hopes to unite its congregation through its commitment to justice, equality and solidarity. Initially, Tzedek Chicago defined itself as non-Zionist, which allowed it to recognize that “the creation of an ethnic Jewish nation-state in historic Palestine resulted in an injustice against its indigenous people,” without taking an active stance against Israel. On March 30, the congregation voted to officially adopt anti-Zionism as a core value. This decision is grounded in the belief that challenging harm cannot be done passively, says synagogue president Scout Bratt. 

The decision followed a slew of virtual town hall meetings in which attendees were encouraged to share candid or written statements. These town halls were modeled after meetings that occurred when the synagogue first set about defining its core values, Bratt says. These values are: a Judaism of nonviolence, equity, spiritual freedom and solidarity, and a Judaism beyond borders and nationalism. 

To Tzedek Chicago’s leaders, identifying as anti-Zionist is a natural extension of standing for “a Judaism beyond borders.” At the core of its anti-Zionist position is the treatment of Palestinians in Israel. The congregation stands in solidarity with those who have been “historically colonized and oppressed,” says Bratt. “Being a part of a congregation that is committed to saying its values proudly and out loud feels to me like a deeply Jewish effort for justice.”

Members of Tzedek Chicago represent a diverse array of ages and locations—children, young adults, and elderly individuals attend programming from as close as Chicago and as far as New Zealand. With such a diverse congregation, synagogue leaders understood that their synagogue would not share a unified opinion, and they created the town halls as a safe space for discussion. “We invited people to share both their thoughts and their feelings, which is something that feels really important to me,” Bratt says. “Creating active dialogue isn’t just about one person’s thought versus another person’s thought. One person’s feelings versus another person’s feelings.”

Although many members of Tzedek Chicago joined the synagogue because of its non-Zionist designation, some members chose to vote against the value change or abstain from voting altogether. Seventy-three percent of the synagogue’s 200 families supported the value change, according to Haaretz. “This is not meant to be a litmus test for belonging in the congregation,” Bratt says. “It is meant to be a statement of active resistance against harm and oppression and apartheid, especially that’s done in our name.” Bratt adds that congregants are welcome regardless of how they vote, and all members can “engage in ongoing learning of what it means to be an anti-Zionist congregation.”

Rabbi Rosen says that other synagogues have not spoken to him directly about Tzedek Chicago’s value change, but “as almost every synagogue is Zionist by default, I can’t imagine they are fans of who we are and what we do,” Rosen says. “Having said this, I have good collegial relationships with some rabbis and Jewish professional colleagues in the Chicago community—and around the country—who know and respect me and our congregation, even if they don’t personally agree with us.”

Across social media and in discussions within the Jewish community, the reaction to Tzedek Chicago’s decision has been a mix of confusion, outrage and praise. 

Regardless of the response, the synagogue’s values will continue to guide its congregants. Many come to Tzedek Chicago because the community offers them a haven where they can simultaneously honor two aspects of their identity: anti-Zionism and Judaism. Although they are a minority within the Jewish community, anti-Zionist Jews will continue to stand behind their values. 

“What I know is that people come from across the globe to Tzedek Chicago to feel a part of a community that is rooted in its values,” Bratt says. “As long as we’re continuing to do that, I have the belief that that sense of community and unity will inspire other people to build community wherever they are.” 

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