Rabbi Brant Rosen said he can’t sit still right now.
“This is where I need to be,” Rosen said at a pro-Palestinian protest in downtown Chicago. “There’s no other place I need to be right now.”
Jewish Voices for Peace, an anti-Zionist left-wing Jewish activist group, collaborated with several organizations to hold the protest in late October. They gathered to demand their local senators call for a ceasefire in Gaza and halted traffic on the Ida B. Wells Drive during that day’s afternoon rush hour, causing major backups.
Rosen’s synagogue, Tzedek Chicago, officially declared itself “anti-Zionist” last year.
“The brutality of that attack, of Hamas’ attack on Israelis was so, so brutal, that we’re still trying to wrap ourselves around that,” Rosen lamented. “And now our grief is being weaponized by the State of Israel in just terrifying ways.”
It’s been one month since the Oct. 7 attack on Israel by Hamas. As the war wages on in Gaza, spiritual leaders in Chicago are helping their congregations deal with the onslaught of death and trauma. They’re coming at it from a multitude of perspectives, grappling with how to lift others up while figuring out how to best personally respond.
Rosen said it’s exhausting to march in protest after protest, but that history will judge how he responded to this moment, so he feels he has no choice.
“This is a moment of very deep moral reckoning for us,” Rosen said. “I don’t know why the world isn’t out on the streets right now, quite frankly.”
Prayerful response leads to political response
Rabbi Michael Siegel of Anshe Emet Synagogue agreed with Rosen that the Israel-Hamas War calls for a deep moral reckoning.
He also agreed that, “Israel is not perfect on this issue.”
But the similarities between the two rabbis’ responses end there.
Siegel said Israel has the right to exist and saying otherwise amounts to anti-Semitism. He leads Anshe Emet Synagogue in Chicago’s Northalsted neighborhood, which sits behind brick walls and has a security guard for protection. About 1,300 families are members.
“I would say most have strong ties to the land of Israel, they have visited Israel, many were born in Israel,” Siegel said. “Or they have families, family and friends with a very close tie in Israel who have been affected, we have people in the congregation who have lost family members.”
He’s taking care of his congregation by calling them to prayer.
On a recent Saturday at a Shabbat morning service, leaders sang the song Acheinu, which means “Our Brethren” and asks God for deliverance.
Siegel said being a spiritual support in the hour of need is any religious leader’s job.
“If we can’t inspire people to dream of a better day then what are we doing? That’s what religion is,” Siegel reflected. “Religion is there to make us better. Religion is there to raise us up. Religion is there to see the spark of God and every human being. And if we’re not doing that, then we need to think more carefully about how we are ascribing to our religious beliefs.”
Shaykh Trenton Carl is ascribing to his religious beliefs by bringing his congregation at Sacred Roots Muslim Community in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood to different protests and hosting trainings on the history of the conflict and implications of how it’s discussed in the media.
Carl’s congregation visited the funeral of six-year-old Palestinian-American Wadea Al-Fayoume, a Muslim boy who was stabbed more than 26 times. Authorities say Joseph Czuba, the man who allegedly killed Al-Fayoume, committed a hate crime. Czuba recently pleaded not guilty in court.
“Our community cannot just bottle it up,” Carl said quietly. “There has to be work for change. And that includes political work as well.”
Carl wants to help the people he leads learn to take in what they hear and read from news and social media with a critical ear. He focuses on three levels of education – justice, media literacy, and teaching the history of the conflict through tools like documentary screenings followed by discussions.
“The Quran says, ‘Say my Lord has enjoined justice, and he has enjoined you to set your heart on God at every occasion of prayer,’ ” Carl quoted. “Prayer is the starting point for any action, and it orients us toward justice, it orients us to an anti war stance.”
Holding two truths at once
The high political tensions and fighting feel inevitable to Reverend David Black, who leads the First Presbyterian Church of Chicago. He visited Israel and the Palestinian territories in 2018.
“Talking to Palestinians, there’s just a sense of just being crushed on a daily basis by the way that they’re treated by Israeli military and police, and the way that they are systematically oppressed and marginalized,” Black said. “And then talking to Israelis, there’s a sense of, ‘Well, our entire religion and ethnicity could be wiped out in a generation.’ ”
Black said he wants to lead with empathy and avoid political punditry. He thinks it is crucial, in this moment, to allow the pain and the grief to sink in.
He said beyond choosing where to send money and what to share on social media, the best way people can respond to the conflict is looking inward.
“The deepest and most profound work that I believe any person can be doing is to find the healing from fear and pain in their own life,” Black said. “And allow that to transform our society where we are, and the systems and structures of violence where we are.”
Black said he understands people can be tempted to feel powerless and hopeless right now.
But when people come to sit in the pews of this stained glass-decorated, echoey church on Sundays, he hopes they are moved to look for the ways they can affect change – even if those ways are small.
Adora Namigadde is a metro reporter for WBEZ. Follow her at @adorakn.