From JRC to AFSC: On Painful Transitions and Exciting New Beginnings

logo_1_1As many readers of this blog already know, I resigned from Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation last August and have recently started a wonderful new gig as Midwest Regional Director for the American Friends Service Committee. I’m still sorting through a variety of emotions. The circumstances of my leaving JRC were complex and painful – and things were complicated yet further by a spate of (largely inaccurate) media articles about my resignation. I wrote about this subject at length in my Erev Rosh Hashanah sermon; of all the reports, probably the most thorough and accurate was this piece in the Chicago Jewish News.

afsc-logo-gifI will undoubtedly share some thoughts about my experience in future posts. In the meantime, however, I am looking forward to the future with genuine excitement and am thrilled to be working for the AFSC, an organization I’ve known well for many years and whose peace and justice mission is so near and dear to my heart. I look forward to posting on this blog about my ongoing work with AFSC in much the same way that I did with my former job. My disclaimer, however, still holds: the positions and opinions I express here are fully my own and not reflective of my employer or any other organization with which I am affiliated.

For starters here is a recent “Introduction to the new Midwest Regional Director” that was recently posted on the AFSC website. I hope it conveys how blessed I feel to be continuing my rabbinate in this new and exciting way:

Please tell us something about yourself.

I’m a native of Los Angeles but have lived in Evanston since 1998, where until recently I’ve served as the rabbi of Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. My wife Hallie and I have been married since 1987 and we have two sons, Gabe (21) and Jonah (18). Before coming to the Chicago area we lived in Philadelphia for five years (where I attended the Reconstructionist Rabbinical College) and in Denver for five years, where I served my first congregation.

While I suppose many might describe my demeanor as laid back, I tend to get very passionate and driven, whether it is books or movies that I love, relationships that are important to me, or causes that I believe in. When I think about the most important influences in my life, I’d say that my family and my upbringing bequeathed to me my deep connection to Jewish identity as well as my strong devotion to activism and social justice. For better or worse, unfairness and injustice tend to keep me up nights – and getting involved in progressive movements for social change has always felt pretty much unavoidable for me.

What has drawn you to work for AFSC?

During the course of my activist work, I’ve invariably found myself working with and marching alongside AFSC folks and progressive Quakers in general. AFSC has really been a fairly ubiquitous and natural presence in the circles in which I’ve traveled. As I’ve become increasingly involved with Palestinian solidarity work in particular, I’ve found wonderful colleagues and friends among the staff people in AFSC’s Middle East program, both here in Chicago and around the country.

I’ve been especially mindful and appreciative of AFSC’s deep engagement in Israel/Palestine justice work. Too often, I think, we in the Jewish community have maintained something of a proprietary relationship to that particular piece of land – and it has been important to me to learn that there are many other important “stake holders” in Israel/Palestine, including AFSC, which has been deeply invested there since well before the state of Israel was founded.

Having said this, I’m also struck that AFSC programs tend to focus on virtually all the issues I’ve been concerned about and involved in over the years: i.e. anti-militarism, immigrant and labor justice, mass incarceration, and issues of structural racism in general. Closer to home, I’ve also cultivated a nice relationship with Evanston Friends Meeting; I’ve spoken there on more than one occasion and have worked with some of its members in local Evanston peace actions.

Now that I’m officially a “Quaker Rabbi,” I’m eager to learn more about Quaker history, ideology and spirituality. From what I’ve learned already, I can clearly see important parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish spiritual values. (I’m going to write more about this for AFSC’s blog “Acting in Faith,” so stay tuned….)

What’s your vision of peace and justice work in AFSC’s Midwest Region?

First and foremost, I share AFSC’s profound vision of “a world in which lasting peace with justice is achieved through nonviolence and the transforming power of love.” I don’t know how to say it any better actually and I’m grateful to AFSC for articulating this vision so simply and powerfully (and, I hasten to add, for implementing this vision around the world in transformative ways for almost a century).

In a more immediate sense, I’m eager to learn how AFSC’s social justice mission has been realized in the unique context of the Midwest Region. While the imperative to create “lasting peace with justice” is obviously a universal one, I’m also well aware that our programs in the Midwest have a history and culture all their own – and I’m excited to learn how this vision has been translated and realized in regional terms. I’m especially looking forward to meeting and getting to know our staff, Executive Committee members and volunteers to learn from them where we’ve succeeded, where we’ve encountered obstacles, and to envision together how to implement our shared vision in an impactful and sustainable way.

Having been involved extensively in programmatic work from my experience in congregational life, I’ve come to believe strongly that the best way to build successful programs is from the ground up, i.e., meeting our constituents where they are and not where we think they “should be.” Simply put, that means we need to be an integral part of the communities we serve, to build real relationships with those whose lives are most directly impacted by the issues we address.

I also believe that while we might separate issues from one another for good tactical reasons, we would do well to understand their intersectionality. To cite but one recent example: I was so struck – and in fact moved – when I read tweets this past summer from Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza to demonstrators in Ferguson, Missouri that explained how to concoct homemade remedies for tear gas inhalation. These simple gestures of solidarity were for me a reminder of the manner in which American militarism impacts lives both here and abroad – and why the proper response must ultimately be one that consciously connects these dots.

How do you take care of yourself in doing this challenging work? 

Any form of caregiving work – whether pastoral or political – necessitates giving fully of our authentic selves. However, I’ve come to learn, from hard experience, that we will easily run dry if we don’t take real responsibility for refilling the emotional/spiritual wells which keep us going. I think many of us mistakenly assume that giving of ourselves is its own reward. And while this kind of work is undeniably gratifying, it is also by its very nature exhausting and depleting, unless we regularly take the time to replenish ourselves and our souls.

And so if we’re truly in this for the long haul, I believe we must constantly ask ourselves, “What replenishes my soul?” “How will I refill the well?” That answer will obliviously differ from person to person. For many of us, of course, it means cultivating a genuine and meaningful spiritual life – but even then, the specific answers to these questions will invariably change and evolve throughout our lives. But no matter what the answers might be, I do strongly believe that we must find the wherewithal to incorporate self–care into our lives if we want to make a difference in the lives of others and the world around us.

So, have you changed your allegiance from the Dodgers to the Cubs since your move to Chicago? 

Oh yeah, I’m a fickle fan. But don’t tell anyone…

13 Replies to “From JRC to AFSC: On Painful Transitions and Exciting New Beginnings”

  1. Congratulations, Brant, on your new gig! My brother-in-law was raised Quaker, and though he does not really practice outside of an occasional meeting, we have found that the Quaker values he lives by are very akin to the humanistic and activist Jewish values that my sister and I grew up with. I am sure that in a similar way your own values and commitment will mesh well with those of the Quaker roots and values that drive the mission of AFSC. Best of luck!

  2. Congratulations, Rabbi Brant! Wonderful to see how quickly you have found a new home for your activism and employment! May this year of “new beginnings” nourish you and your family, providing fertile ground for planting seed of justice and hope.

  3. I’m so happy that you have a new home for your work for justice, Rabbi Brant. Please keep those Shalom Rav blog posts coming. I hope you will continue to share your thoughts on the situation in Israel/Palestine.
    Best wishes for much happiness and fulfillment in your new job,
    Mary Wilson

  4. Brant….how fortunate AFSC is to have you….and you them. Such a perfect fit. Yes, you are indeed continuing your journey in the rabbinate through AFSC. I remain among the many who value learning from you…..keep it coming and mazel tov!

  5. Congratulations Brant on your new journey. This is a great fit and you will shine as you have with us at jRC. I look forward to hearing and reading about your new experiences ans so happy for you and your Family.

  6. This is terrific. My family and I have had long Quaker associations too, as well as with the Church of the Brethren. Glad to see you are also making some of those ties.

    I know you bring tremendous talent and a deep well of relevant experience to the job.

    It will be very interesting to hear about your experiences with Quaker history and spirituality.

    Peace and blessings,

    Sarah

  7. Congratulations Brant on your new position and the work you will be doing. May you and your work be blessed in many ways. And a Happy New Year to you and your family.

  8. I, for one, am glad you drew the proper conclusions that correspond with those I have pointed out here in the past. That is, that you have cut yourself off from the Jewish people, going far beyond legitimate discussions concerning Israel’s policies regarding its Arab neighbors. Instead you have come to an outright negation of Israel’s very existence as well as denying the worldwide Jewish People’s innate ties with the Land of Israel and the State of Israel. No doubt many Christians will enjoy seeing a self-identifying Jew who even has the title of “Rabbi” denounce Israel, but this won’t be for the first time in history.

    1. Hi Ike, so nice to hear from you after all this time! And how nice to read that you haven’t budged an inch from your relentless quest to tar me as a turncoat and traitor to my people and tradition.

      Of course I haven’t drawn any such “conclusions,” in concert with yours, but I do appreciate and marvel at your persistence. Thanks as always for taking the time to read and weigh in.

  9. Brant-
    I never used either of the epithets you mentioned in my comments. I did say that you have cut yourself off from the Jewish people in a way similar to the way Neturei Karta has done. I will explain:
    The fundamental definition of the Jewish people which you don’t seem to understand is that the Jews are a NATION and the Jewish tradition and laws, or “the Torah” if you wish, are its CONSTITUTION. It suprises me that you don’t seem to accept this since you have received a Rabbinical education Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of the Reconstructionist movement you come out of, himself defined the Jews and Judaism as a ‘religious civilization”.
    This defintion of the Jewish nation is not only understood and accepted by the Jewish people but by most of the non-Islamic world which is why they supported the Balfour Declaration and 1947 UN Palestinian Partition Resolution 181.
    Being the member of a nation with a Constitution obliges all its members to abide by various civic responsibilites. That means that the Consitution, on the one hand, obligates all members of the nation whether or not they are aware of it or whether the agree with it and its terms, but, on the other hand, all members of that nation are responsible for the welfare of the their fellow members of that nation, whether they like them or not, whether they agree with them or not, or whether they know them personally or not.
    The problem with groups like Neturei Karta is that they do not recognize this,they act like a religious sect in which they claim the whole and only Truth and reject everyone elses views and opinions.
    Before 1948 it was legitimate among the Jewish people to argue about whether it was appropriate to set up a nation-state in Eretz Israel, but, as I have stated here before, the QUESTION HAS BEEN DECIDED. The Jewish nation, both in Israel and outside of it, decded as a national body to recognize the legitimacy of the creation of the state of Israel and support its continued existence. As I have also said, there is a legitimate argument about what the borders of the country should be, what its relationship with the Palestinians and other Arabs should be and qustions about internal matters like economic policy, the relationship between religion and state and the such.
    However, to support boycotts and deligitimization of Israel and to harrass and shout down Israeli leaders and supporters as does JVP (and then turn around and demand “freedom of speech for BDS” in Hillel) is completely outside the pale, just as it would be for American citizens to say ” I don’t recognize the Constitution of the US” or “I will not pay any income taxes since I was not consulted when it was enacted in the 19th century”.
    After seeing your announcment about joining AFSC I decided to look it up on Wikipedia and saw that it mentions that some people consider it to be “the most militant Christian anti-Israel group”. Thus, it should not suprise you when Jews reject teh AFSC as a partner for dialogue and work against its influence and activities.
    I would suggest that if having Israel make TRUE peace with the Palestinians (if that is indeed possible) is that important to you as a Jew , then you should come and make aliyah to Israel,
    take your rightful place in the Israeli Jewish nation and work within the Israeli democratic system to further your views. You would be welcomed with open arms by all Jews in Israel.

  10. Wishing you the best of luck, Brant. I have been meaning to write and tell you that your name came up in my refugee camp group the other week. Some of these youngsters do not understand that not all Jews are soldiers, as they see soldiers daily and rarely leave the camp, and this Hanukkah I was using the festival as an opportunity to encourage them to think about Jews and Judaism in broader terms than khaki and guns. All of a sudden one twelve-year-old boy announced, “Some Jews visited us from America.” It didn’t take many questions to work out who he was talking about. The younger kids were fascinated. I should say that this is a particularly fragile group; they have all either been in army custody themselves or have close relatives in jail, and normally we work on fears relating to torture and prison. They’re not in a good state of mind and it was encouraging to me to see how they received the story of your visit to the camp. You have done a lot of good through your rabbinate, perhaps more than you know, and I’m sure that won’t stop in your new job.

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