Rabbi David Minkus (left) leads a discussion at Mercaz, a community programming initiative of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago's Hyde Park. In June 2024 Minkus released "A Leaflet Drops in Shul," a podcast about his handling of an anti-Zionist congregant's actions. (Courtesy of Mercaz)
Rabbi David Minkus (left) leads a discussion at Mercaz, a community programming initiative of Congregation Rodfei Zedek in Chicago's Hyde Park. In June 2024 Minkus released "A Leaflet Drops in Shul," a podcast about his handling of an anti-Zionist congregant's actions. (Courtesy of Mercaz)

‘A Leaflet Drops in Shul’: New podcast explores anti-Zionism at a Chicago synagogue

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Three weeks after Oct. 7, the Chicago rabbi David Minkus was leading his congregation in a Shabbat service when he noticed that someone had covertly slipped anti-Zionist leaflets inside the synagogue’s prayer books.

“It was completely shocking,” Minkus recalled months later. “It’s just weeks after Oct. 7, the pain and the shock were so raw, and you open up the siddur and you find this thing that feels like it’s thumbing its nose at that pain.”

The staff at Congregation Rodfei Zedek, a 200-family Conservative synagogue in Hyde Park known for welcoming a diverse range of views, quickly identified the culprit as a Jewish member of the community and decided to ban her from the synagogue. But Minkus soon heard from others in his community who were upset at his decision, feeling like he had erased the possibility of dialogue and teshuvah, the Jewish value of repentance.

Soon he found himself reconsidering the move and realized he was sitting on an ideal teaching opportunity for a larger Jewish community that has become bitter and hardened over questions of Zionism and anti-Zionism amid the Israel-Hamas war. Instead of quietly resolving the situation, Minkus decided to turn the whole dilemma into a podcast.

“It felt like a story that was worth broadcasting, literally and figuratively, beyond our community,” Minkus told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency. “Because I think we, the Jewish community, generally get things wrong around Israel, when it comes to criticism and how to handle dissenting voices.”

This experience formed the inspiration for “A Leaflet Drops in Shul,” a three-part series whose final episode was released last week. Minkus launched it as an endeavor of Mercaz, the congregation’s new community cultural center, which he hopes will be Chicago’s version of New York’s 92NY or Washington, D.C.’s Sixth & I: an incubator for a range of Jewish-inflected cultural conversations.

Minkus never intended for those conversations to include a heavy focus on Israel, calling most congregational Israel programming “misguided” and believing such activities are best left to more explicitly Israel-focused organizations. (92NY has itself faced turmoil over its Israel stance since Oct. 7, facing extensive blowback after canceling a planned event with an author who had signed an Israel-critical statement.) Yet the timing of the leaflet incident with the rollout of Mercaz felt more than coincidental.

It was a chance, he said, to put his ideas about inclusion into practice, and to wrestle with his own questions about how welcoming Jewish communities should be to people who hold views that may be uncomfortable or anathema to most members.

Perhaps nowhere are those questions as acute as when it comes to Israel. Even as congregational rabbis have hotly debated how much criticism of the Israeli government is appropriate, institutional Judaism has by and large shunned anti-Zionism. That’s been the case even though — or perhaps because — the movement has seen a manifest growth as a Jewish political force since Oct. 7, with groups such as Jewish Voice for Peace boasting expanded participation and many college pro-Palestinian encampments, including at the University of Chicago, near the synagogue, including a Jewish contingent.

The rabbi’s desire to explore the place of anti-Zionism in his congregation is the driving force of the podcast’s narrative. Over the course of three episodes, Minkus interviews his congregant and fellow podcaster, “Judaism Unbound” co-host Dan Libenson, who along with his wife had called on Minkus to rethink his decision to ban the pamphleteer from shul. Libenson, who is president of the Lippman Kanfer Foundation for Living Torah, had told Minkus that he didn’t agree with the anti-Zionist message, yet the ban struck him as an unnecessarily harsh form of karet — the Biblical punishment of excommunicating someone from the Jewish people. The argument resonated.

“I was really surprised,” Libenson said, upon learning that Minkus wanted to air their dialogue about the leaflet in public. “I didn’t know that he experienced it as such a big incident.”

But Libenson recognized the larger significance of the story for the Jewish world and now hopes it could lead Jewish communities to back away from “polar extremes” on topics like Israel. His own podcast, “Judaism Unbound,” includes guests from across the spectrum of Jewish life, including anti-Zionists.

In the final episode of “A Leaflet Drops in Shul,” Minkus interviews the leafleteer herself, who has been anonymized and whose voice is redubbed by an actor. An anti-Zionist convert to Judaism, she describes how she acted out of a sense of unease over the synagogue’s prayers for the state of Israel and, after Oct. 7, the IDF — staples in American synagogues that in recent years have themselves been hotly debated. She also apologizes for the position she put the rabbi in.

By the show’s conclusion (spoiler alert), Minkus has unbanned her from the synagogue and has implored the greater Jewish community to engage in better dialogue and empathize with its own anti-Zionist members. Jews should have “the grace and humility to hear from those we don’t agree with,” he concludes.

It’s a view he told JTA he came by honestly, even as he himself remains a committed Zionist. In his decade-plus as a rabbi, Minkus says he’s concluded that the “red line” approach on views on Israel doesn’t work, and isn’t likely to convince Jewish anti-Zionists to become Zionists.

“I feel that so long as you’re being thoughtful, it shouldn’t matter what you believe,” Minkus said. “There are assholes of all stripes. That knows no position on the political spectrum, and that knows no observance level. And we allow people of all varieties into our synagogues, and we should hold that line on Israel, as well.”

The congregation’s response to the podcast’s release has been overwhelmingly positive, Minkus said. (Libenson said that, while he doesn’t attend synagogue very often, he has also heard from other members who were pleased with the show.) The rabbi also concludes the show by openly soliciting feedback on the hot-button issue, which he promises to share in a future episode.

While calling Minkus “a wonderful and extraordinary person,” Libenson added that he hoped any Jewish leader in his shoes would take a similarly thoughtful approach to the question of how to engage with anti-Zionists.

“The fact that he listened deeply, and that he changed his mind, and that he also is so willing to share that publicly, and is not afraid to make a podcast that says ‘My initial reaction was wrong,’ is extraordinary. But I wish that it wasn’t extraordinary,” Libenson said. “That’s what we should be expecting from our rabbis: that they are thoughtful, that they take Judaism seriously, that they’re not simply acting and reacting.”

Andrew Lapin

Andrew Lapin is the Managing Editor for Local News at the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.