A Rabbi at AFSC: Quaker and Jewish connections – Part 1

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refguee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha'aretz)

American Quaker Marjorie McClelland with Jewish refugee child, Vichy France (photo: Ha’aretz)

(Crossposted with Acting in Faith)

When I tell people that I’ve just started working for the American Friends Service Committee, some will inevitably scratch their heads and ask, “What is a rabbi doing working for a Quaker organization?”

Those who know me well, know enough not to ask. During my twenty-plus years as a congregational rabbi/activist, I’ve often worked alongside AFSC staff and progressive Quakers, particularly on the issue of Mideast peace and justice. I’ve cultivated a wonderful ongoing relationship with the Friends Meeting in my hometown of Evanston and have spoken there on more than one occasion. During the course of my travels throughout the peace and justice activist community in Chicago and beyond, I can say without hesitation that some of my best friends have been Friends.

For those who do ask, I explain that while AFSC is a Quaker organization, it is wonderfully multi-faith in its composition. I’m certainly not the first Jew to work for AFSC (nor am I even the first rabbi – my friend and colleague Rabbi Lynn Gottlieb served as Co-Director of AFSC’s Middle East Program in San Francisco from 2007 to 2009). Since the announcement of my hiring, in fact, I’ve heard from increasing numbers of Jewish friends and colleagues who have told me of their involvement in AFSC in various capacities over the years.

Of course this connection is more than merely anecdotal; there are in fact important historical affinities between Quakers and Jews. During the course of the 20th and 21st centuries, our respective communities have been proportionally well represented in progressive movements of social change, particularly in the American civil rights and anti-war movements. Our faith communities are also historically linked by the heroic efforts of Quakers and the AFSC to help save thousands of European Jews during the Holocaust and to provide relief for scores of Jewish refugees in the war’s aftermath.

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

Quakers from AFSC handing out blankets in Gaza, 1948 (photo: AFSC)

In more recent years, it would be fair to say that the Quaker-Jewish connection has become somewhat fractured over the Israel-Palestine issue. While this subject deserves consideration in another blog post, I will only say for now that I have long been dismayed at the hypocrisy of those in my community who applaud the Quakers’ work on behalf of Jewish refugees, yet bitterly criticize them for applying the very same values and efforts on behalf of Palestinian refugees. I would add as well that there are increasing numbers of Jews like myself who reject the nationalism/militarism of Zionism in favor of a Jewish vision that promotes peace with justice and full rights for all who live in the land. I do believe that this trend is providing an important new place of connection between Jews and Quakers – particularly among a younger generation of activists and organizers.

Beyond these historical connections, I’ve become increasingly interested in exploring a different form of Quaker-Jewish encounter: namely, the deeper spiritual commonalities between our respective faith traditions themselves. I do believe that this Jewish-Quaker connection transcends simple political affinity. In this regard, I’ve been particularly struck by Jews who identify deeply with the Jewish people and Jewish tradition while at the same time unabashedly embrace Quaker practice and spirituality.

For instance, Claire Gorfinkel, who worked for the AFSC for many years and attends both a Quaker Meeting and a Jewish synagogue, explored this territory memorably in her 2000 Pendle Hill pamphlet, “I Have Always Wanted to be Jewish – And Now Thanks to the Religious Society of Friends I Am.”

For Gorfinkel, the most critical point of commonality between these two faiths lies in their rejection of Divine intermediation as well as their powerful ethical traditions:

For both Quakerism and Judaism, God is directly accessible to the seeker, without need for priests or other intermediaries. God appears in the faces of our community and in the wonders of our natural world.

For both traditions, faith and the words we use are far less important than how we treat one another and our environment. Our human worth is measured in acts of loving kindness, “doing justice, loving mercy, walking humbly with your God.” (p. 31)

More recently, Jonathan Zasloff, a Jewish law professor at UCLA wrote a powerful piece for the Los Angeles Jewish Journal entitled, “Some of My Best Jews are Friends.” In his article, a commentary on Prophetic portion for the Sabbath of Hanukkah, Zasloff revealed that he regularly attends a Quaker meeting – and that the practice of silence “has deeply enhanced (his) Jewish practice.”

Contending that “silence and individual spiritual expression” are “absent from modern Judaism,” he suggested “there is no reason why Jews cannot adopt Quaker practice:”

Some form of silent worship has a long tradition in Judaism, one that our people has regrettably allowed to lapse. The Talmudic sages would “be still one hour prior to each of the three prayer services, then pray for one hour and afterwards be still again for one hour more.” (Moses Maimonides) interpreted this as silent motionlessness in order “to settle their minds and quiet their thoughts.”

As a Jew who also finds a comfortable spiritual home in the Quaker community, I’m encouraged and excited by these kinds of connections. In our increasingly multi-faith 21st century, I firmly believe it is time to seek out those places where we might lift up and celebrate our spiritual commonalities rather than simply fall back upon a religious tribalism for its own sake.

As I think more about potential areas of further Jewish – Quaker encounter, I am particularly intrigued by the parallels between Quaker Testimonies and Jewish religious values. Indeed, when I first read AFSC’s booklet “An Introduction to Quaker Testimonies,” I was immediately struck by a myriad of connections – causing me to think more deeply about the similar ways these ideals have been understood and acted upon in unique ways by our respective faith traditions.

As I read through them, I’m struck by a number of questions. As a Jew who has found a comfortable home in the Quaker community, I wonder:

To what extent do these testimonies/values reflect the unique experiences of our respective faith communities?

What is ultimately more important: the uniqueness of our paths or our shared vision of universal peace and justice?

And how might we find the wherewithal, despite our differences, to travel this road together?


14 thoughts on “A Rabbi at AFSC: Quaker and Jewish connections – Part 1

  1. mivasair

    Shalom uvracha to you, Brant. Thank you so much for this writing.

    Since you began working with the AFSC, I’ve been thinking of Gail Pressberg, a very committed Jewish woman who was working with the AFSC in Colorado when I did the very first non-violence training I ever encountered. This was, if my memory serves, in 1976.

    I also worked in a Friends meeting in Washington, DC, for four years in the late ’70’s and found that some of the solid supporters of our peace work there were Jews who were also Quakers . . . and we said then, yes, of course, some of our best Jews are Friends.


  2. Anthony Gimpel

    Dear Brant Rosen

    Your thoughts are very welcome. There are several of us Jews in England who are now Quakers. We cover a broad spread in our Jewish inheritance. A couple of years ago Meeting for Sufferings (the Quaker representative body in Britain) decided to publicly endorse disinvestment and boycott of West Bank Settlement Goods. This has caused dismay and disruption between many Friends Meetings and Synagogue Congregations.

    As a consequence a dozen or so of us Quaker Jews or Jewish Quakers are struggling to find a response to restore the relationships and to understand the conflict in Israel/Palestine.

    Anthony Gimpel, Loughborough, England

  3. Scrim

    Thank you for this update, Rabbi Rosen and my best wishes to you in your new position with the Friends.

    In the late Rabbi Harold Schulweis’s 1990 book of essays “In God’s Mirror”, the rabbi in an essay titled “Space and Time” talks about the over-concern of some Jews about physical space — in the essay it referred to where they sit in the synagogue. He was opposed to this over-concern, but in reading his essay, it occurred to me that he said something that could apply to some Jews’ attitude toward the physical land of Israel as well. Here is what Schulweis said:

    “There are fears about limiting God to place, and not simply because it seems to reduce the dignity and power of God. The deification of place leads to dangerous idolatory.”

    Schulweis said that God is found “not in statues, shrines, palaces of marble and stone but in the human spirit.”

    Amen. Rabbi Rosen, I am looking forward to meeting you in person at the JVP meeting in Baltimore in March.

  4. 2skipper

    When sadly I knew you were not staying at JRC, I was so happy that you had found a new position at the American Friends Service Committee. I found it quite natural and not unusual that a Rabbi with your level of social Justice activism, especially with the mideast would find a home there. What is more fitting than someone who believes in Human rights and non violent protest becoming part of a Quaker organization? A perfect fit. I will be most interested in the work you do and congratulate you on this most wonderful opportunity. So keep us all informed – we all know that this has been a most wonderful new Journey for you.

  5. i_like_ike52

    Time for a discordant voice….
    As a Jew with some familiarity with the basic Jewish sources (TANACH/Hebrew Scriptures, Talmud, Rabbinic literature) I can find very little that Judaism and Quakerism have in common (given that my scanty knowledge of Quakerism comes from Wikipedia and the Encyclopedia Britannica). Not only that, it seems that in recent history at least, we Jews are always on the wrong side of the Quakers. I am aware that Quakers did relief work for the Jewish survivors and refugees after the Holocaust, and an important Quaker, Frank Aydelotte, who was head of the Institute for Advanced Research at Princeton served on 1946 Anglo-American Commission on Palestine that tried to find a solution to the conflict there between Jews and Arab came out in favor of creation of a Jewish state. Having said this, it is hard to forget that the Quakers are pacificsts and concientious objectors who opposed fighting Nazism and the Holocaust in World War II. I guess the Quakers viewed us as “collateral damage” coming out of their pacifist policies. Another thing I read many years ago (I am sorry, but I don’t have source) said Quakers helped Nazi war crminals escape justice after the war because they supposedly believe that “no one has the right to judge another person”, presumably based on Jesus’s statement on the matter. (please correct me if I am wrong).
    However, today, regarding their pacifist, quietest views go out the window when it comes to the Palestinians. Instead of telling them to quietly accept their situation, the Quakers encourage militant (albeit supposedly “non-violent”) protests aganst Israel. This was like the views of another “pacifist”…India’s Mohandas Gandhi who said Arabs have a right to use violence against Jews and who also recommended that we Jews commit suicide in the Holocaust and by doing that we would be doing the Germans a favor by keeping their hands clean while still getting out of their way.
    Of course, maybe I shoud be more charitable, after all the Quaker Aydelotte did say that before he visited Palestine in 1946 he was “anti-Zionist”, but after visiting he came to the conclusion that “but when you see at first hand what the Jews have done ….the greatest creative effort in the modern world…..The Arabs would destroy all that the Jews have done and we must not let them do it”. Add to this the support the Quaker President of the United States Richard Nixon gave to Israel at the critical time of the Yom Kippur War and we see the picture is not all negative.

    1. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


      Quakerism and Judaism are different religions, but this does not mean they do not have important values in common. I will address these commonalities in Pt. 2. Stay tuned.

      About the only thing in which we are agreement is your admission of your “scanty knowledge of Quakerism.” I must say that your accusation that Quakers viewed Jews in Germany as “collateral damage” during WW II is particularly sickening. Yes German Quakers were pacifists, but this does not mean they simply stood idly by. On the contrary, they actively saved Jewish lives during and after the war. Among other things, Quakers were among the primary organizers of the Kindertransport and hid Jewish families at their own peril. In other words, they actively saved your people. Your comment that they viewed Jewish lives as somehow disposable is beyond shameful.

      Your unsubstantiated claim that Quakers helped Nazi war criminals escape justice is borderline libelous. This is something “you read many years ago?” Please. Unless you have a reliable source for such accusations you have no business making them. I have searched in vain for any evidence of your claim and have found absolutely nothing to support it. (BTW: in investigating your little tidbit, I did learn of a Quaker journalist named Charles Allen who wrote expose a series articles for “Jewish Currents” Magazine in the early 1960s that exposed and outed Nazis who were living freely in the US. Click here for more.)

      I won’t bother to stoop to respond to your snide remark about Quaker support of “supposedly non-violent protests” only to say that if you have any evidence at all of Quaker support for violence in Israel/Palestine – or anywhere else in the world for that matter – you should should either cite it or refrain from engaging in any more disingenuous innuendo.

      1. i_like_ike52

        Apparently both you and I need to do more reasearch about the role of the Quakers in World War 2. I have come across a book called “Quakers and Nazis” by Hans Schmitt. I, of course, have not had time to read it, but I came across a reader’s review at Amazon.com. Yes, many Quakers heroically tried to help Jews AS INDIVIDUALS, which you mention yourself. However, they opposed the war effort against Nazi Germany, which you don’t mention. I now quote from the review:
        “Schmitt also writes of how the Friends worked to free Nazis from prison, to feed the Nazis and German soldiers, and make sure they were clothed. They believed that no one should be imprisoned for the sake of their conscience, no one should be mistreated for what they believed- no matter how insiduous those beliefs.

        There are times when the Quakers struggle with their missions, and times when they don’t agree. Reflecting the standard Quaker doctrine that each individual should be guided by the internal Light of the Holy Spirit, some choose to fight for Germany, though most choose the ancient Quaker doctrine of pacifism. Some choose to work in England to try to appease Germany; others realize early on this will not happen. Some are willing to agree with Germany’s Semitic separations in feeding the poor and oppressed, in order that they might at least help some; others refuse to be involved in anti-Semitism at all.
        The reviewer points out that the author emphasizes in the book that the title is “Quakers AND Nazis”, not “Quakers VS Nazis”..
        From this, I conclude that the Quakers do NOT believe in the concept of JUSTICE, which is a bedrock belief of Judaism and that is why I stated that Judaism and Quakerism don’t really have much in common. Pacifism in the face of monstrous tyranny is obscene, as George Orwell wrote in this piece:


        Food for thought, I hope, Brant.

      2. Rabbi Brant Rosen Post author


        I am familiar with Schmitt’s book and recommend it highly. However, nowhere in his book, does Schmitt claim, as you did, that “Quakers helped Nazi war criminals escape justice after the war.” Schmitt does indeed document the ways Quakers advocated for the humane treatment of imprisoned German soldiers (not “war criminals”) and engaged with Nazi sympathizers in reconciliation projects after the war. One of these projects eventually became “Action Reconciliation” – an important German peace organization that does critical work to this day to help Germans confront the legacy of Nazism.

        In this regard, it is categorically false to say, as you do, that “Quakers do not believe in the concept of justice.” They are in fact pioneers in the work of restorative justice, which in many ways has proven much more effective than punitive justice. It is also a canard to claim that pacifism is nothing more than inaction in the face of “monstrous tyranny.” I believe it is much more accurate to say that pacifism is a philosophy and way of living that seeks to avert the likelihood that people and nations will resort to war and tyranny to solve their conflicts.

        And by the way: in the future I suggest you base your opinions on books by actually reading them and not just by Googling Amazon reviews.

  6. deborahjross

    As a Jew who regularly attends Quaker meeting (Santa Cruz Monthly Meeting), I find the silence and deep listening, not to mention the passion for social justice and the respect for the worth and dignity of all people, strengthens my Jewish identity. I found out about your blog through an online group “Jewish Friends (Quakers).” (As a serendipitous aside, I attended college with Claire Gorfinkel.)

  7. Doug Gertner

    Well Brant, your good work and wise words once again inspire clarity, reflection, and memories for me:

    My first touch with Quakers came during a semester spent living/working/studying in Philadelphia, as a college junior, in 1979. A seeker, I wandered into the main meeting house in Center City for a contemplative experience I’ve never forgotten. As an aside, the housemate who joined me for that silent meeting, also a Jew, became a practicing Quaker soon after.

    The following summer I spent working in Philly alongside an AFSC activist. It was 1980, and Jimmy Carter had reinstated Selective Service. When my step-mother saw fit to remind me of this, and suggest I must register for a potential draft, my reply, that I was inclined to instead register as a CO, caused considerable enmity with my folks.

    Your continued good work provides me with ongoing energy and focus for my own activism, and I welcome these deeper connection to our Friends. Be well, and blog on my friend.


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