Local rabbi breaks barriers

Nicole Hong

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No one expected Brant Rosen to become a rabbi. Often sent to his rabbi’s office when he was in Hebrew school, Rosen said he was a rebellious “troublemaker” as a child.

“My classes were boring, and my rabbi wasn’t particularly inspiring,” Rosen said. “I tell people I wanted to become a rabbi so I could be the sort of rabbi I wish I had when I was a kid.”

Rosen, 46, found his calling as a spiritual leader almost accidentally in college and is now the rabbi of Evanston’s Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation. A strong voice in the local Jewish community, Rosen has become one of the most well respected rabbis in the country.

His colleagues call him approachable and genuinely passionate, which may be why he was named to Newsweek’s “Top 25 Pulpit Rabbis in America” last year. In April, Rosen received Chicago Magazine’s Green Award, which recognizes six of the Chicago area’s “most earth-friendly individuals,” for the rebuilding of JRC’s synagogue.

“Come hell or high water, Brant is going to be true to himself,” said JRC’s cantor Howard Friedland, who has worked with Rosen for almost 10 years. “I couldn’t imagine working with anyone else.”

Baseball and bar mitzvahs

Leading a congregation of 480 families is not the typical nine-to-five job, Rosen said. On top of baby namings, weekly bar and bat mitzvahs and other pastoral responsibilities, Rosen is always on call for his congregants.

“It’s an emotionally and physically taxing job, and it takes its toll on you and your family,” Rosen said.

However, he doesn’t see his work as a sacrifice.

“The rewarding part of the job is just working with people and being a part of their lives in a very real way,” he said. “People are so willing to let me into the most important times in their lives, and that’s what I’m most proud of.”

Even with the overwhelming workload, Rosen likes it that way. Friedland said Rosen turned down “dream jobs” – congregations with services only once every other week – for JRC.

Rosen has reinvented the traditional relationship between clergy and congregation by shedding the persona often reserved for spiritual leaders, his wife Hallie Rosen said.

“He’s just a regular guy being a rabbi at the same time,” she said. “In one breath, he can say all this articulate knowledge about Judaism while telling you baseball scores and reciting lines from movies.”

From going green to israel

Recently, Rosen has been active in grassroots campaigns that promote immigrant and worker justice and environmental awareness. He frequently attends rallies and has led congregational trips to Africa for volunteer work.

One of his recent projects was rebuilding JRC’s synagogue into an eco-friendly structure, which peer institutions sometimes call “the greenest synagogue in America.”

Nearly everything is designed to minimize the building’s carbon footprint. Ninety-six percent of the former building was recycled and incorporated into the new building’s foundation. Black walnut inside the building came from trees in Chicago that were blown down during storms.

“Everywhere you look, there’s a story,” Rosen said, pointing out that even the light bulbs in his office are state-of-the-art fluorescent light bulbs.

Along with his social work, Rosen speaks openly about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, frequently taking controversial stances when he believes “Israel is behaving in an oppressive manner.”

Rosen serves on the national boards for Rabbis for Human Rights and for Brit Tzedek v’Shalom, an organization lobbying for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Although Rosen is vocal about his opinions, he is not “shaming” or “dogmatic” to those with different opinions, said former JRC president Carol Kaplan.

“He’s willing to wrestle with you about things he cares about in a way that’s not alienating at all,” Kaplan said.

juggling son, husband and father

A Los Angeles native, Rosen’s parents and his older brother were all musicians.

“I played violin for many years, but I hated it, almost as much as I hated Hebrew school,” Rosen said, laughing.

The rabbi attended the University of California at Los Angeles, where he fell into the Jewish crowd and met his wife.

“I thought he was very cute,” she said.

He also took time off school to spend two years in Israel.

“It wasn’t until college when I rediscovered Judaism in my own way and my own terms,” Rosen said.

While in Israel, Rosen began to consider becoming a rabbi and returned to UCLA to complete a history degree. Afterwards, he attended rabbinical school in Philadelphia.

Rosen floated between pulpits in New Jersey and California before settling in Colorado for five years, where his sons Gabriel, 15, and Jonah, 13, were born. He moved to Evanston in 1998 to work at JRC.

In his free time, Rosen updates his blog, which features everything from articles on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to videos on how to make cheesecake. Last year, he got a tattoo –