Sunday, September 07, 2014

Rabbi Brant Rosen Resigned From Evanston's JRC Synagogue

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It's an odd thing when your rabbi resigns and the news makes international headlines. Welcome to my synagogue. I have many thoughts about Rabbi Brant Rosen's sad and surprising recent announcement, but one of the things that irks me most is seeing how my synagogue community is characterized in the news and especially (insert eye roll here) the comment sections of the online press. I don't know if I will comment further here personally, but I did want to share (with permission) a note written by Joshua Karsh, a past president of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. He eloquently states many of my thoughts from an informed perspective.


Regarding Rabbi Brant Rosen's Resignation


When Brant announced his resignation earlier this week, he said in his email that the decision to resign was "mine alone" and added that: "The Board has not asked me for my resignation, nor have I experienced any pressure from our congregational leadership to curtail my activism as a result of this controversy. On the contrary …"

Brant made his own choice. But of course choices are influenced by circumstances. And having served on the JRC board for several years, including as President from 2009 to 2011, and been involved, twice, in making sure that the congregation came to terms with Brant in contract negotiations so that he would continue as our rabbi, I know something about the context of his resignation. So I find myself more than a tad defensive for the congregation when I read press coverage and Facebook posts stating or insinuating that Brant was  "silenced" or "forced" to quit or "pushed" out because of his positions.

When Brant began speaking out about the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2008, that would have been a career-ending move in most congregations. Not at JRC. At JRC, Brant had a home in a congregation committed to the proposition that rabbis should have freedom to speak their minds—when they're right and when they're wrong and also, as is often the case, when only time will tell. As recently as June, the JRC Board stood by Brant and reaffirmed those principles.

JRC did not limit Brant’s activism or silence him: Brant’s blog (http://rabbibrant.com/), his book (http://tinyurl.com/maewbgy), his writings for Al Jazeera (http://tinyurl.com/m7ljps2), his attendance and remarks at the Presbyterian Church (USA) General Assembly in support of divestment (http://tinyurl.com/l4fg3gv), his leadership role in Jewish Voice for Peace (http://jewishvoiceforpeace.org/), and his cooperation with a group of protesters who disrupted a JUF dinner in Chicago last month (http://tinyurl.com/lptdyrm), all prove that.

Brant was not forced out. Brant resigned. And he resigned in the third year of a ten-year contract, which the congregation gave him while knowing all about his political views and activism and the controversy they occasioned. The congregation gave him a 10-year contract despite the fact that some long-time members had left the congregation because of his politics, others no longer wanted Brant to officiate at their life-cycle events, and some, including some of the largest donors, had stopped giving to the capital campaign, which pays our mortgage—because of Brant's politics. Supporting Brant was not always easy. But the Board stood by him. The congregation, as a whole, stood by him.

Brant has decided that he doesn't want to be our rabbi any more. I sympathize with him. As a pulpit rabbi, Brant served two masters, his conscience and his congregation, and sometimes, by speaking his mind, he inflamed significant numbers of members of the congregation, who spoke out against him. There is strife within the congregation. It had to be exhausting and painful for Brant. No sane person would not be anguished. After a while, in this case six years, enough is enough. Maybe that's the point that Brant reached. Maybe he realized that there are other jobs he can do where he can advance the causes he cares about without becoming a lightning rod. But being a pulpit rabbi isn't one of those jobs—unless your congregation has a litmus test for membership that requires all members to agree with the rabbi or agree not to voice their opposition when they don't. At JRC, we have no such litmus test.

The JRC Board gave Brant a ten-year contract. We worked really hard to make it possible for Brant to be our rabbi, and we will miss him dearly.

JRC lost a popular, inspirational, and charismatic rabbi once before (Arnie Rachlis, in 1992). Then, as now, the rabbi resigned, his resignation was not planned, and many members did not see it coming. They were shocked, hurt and angry. They despaired, believing that the rabbi was JRC. But JRC survived and, as it turned out, prospered, growing and improving, including, ultimately, by finding and hiring Brant. We’ll survive again now and prosper too. Every great congregation is bigger than its rabbi, and conflating the two is a mistake –and also a distinctly un-Reconstructionist mistake. (Reconstructionism is a "bottom up" approach to Judaism).

We have just celebrated JRC’s 50th year. We have been through change before and will change again, and we've had and will have other rabbis. Although it’s a painful lesson to learn, rabbis, even the very best rabbis, are not forever. For many of us, and for my family in particular, Brant has been the best or one of the best rabbis we've ever known. But ultimately, the most important and stable part of any great congregation—and JRC is a great congregation—is its members. Our members come to JRC and stay at JRC for many reasons—including the congregation’s commitment to social justice, the environment, and tikkun olam; the warmth of the community and the friends who become family; the inspiring music (much of it composed by our own members) and the dancing; the joyous spirituality; the beach services; the Kallah; Families Enjoying Shabbat Together (FEST); the adult education programming; the early childhood program; youth group; the religious school. I could go on. All of that, and more, is still here. We have a lot of work to do, but we also have a lot to celebrate.

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