The History of Flags and Chicago Sinai

News and Views

You never know what to expect when you ask a Rabbi a question….

To illustrate, I’ll share a question that was asked of me two years ago. The literal question of the e-mail subject line was, “Can we visit with you?” But the real question was written in the message: “We wish to propose having the flag of Israel in the sanctuary for your consideration and support”.

This was not the first time I was asked this question at Chicago Sinai Congregation. During my interviews to become Senior Rabbi, the committee asked me what I imagine they asked all candidates: Would you bring an Israeli flag into the sanctuary to hang next to the American flag? Despite knowing how thorny issues pertaining to powerful symbols can be, I answered honestly: I see flags as political symbols, not Jewish symbols. Because they contain such potential power to divide human beings from one another, I offered my opinion that no flags belonged in the sanctuary. And then I quickly added my own question, “This isn’t just a theoretical question, is it?” Everyone laughed. Flags and Sinai have a long history, indeed.

Chicago Sinai Congregation was founded in 1861, and was committed from our very beginnings to the power of a Union in which all were created equal. Our founders came to America to enjoy the freedom and opportunities offered in the United States, including liberal religious freedoms available here that were often denied to them by the German states and by the state-sponsored Orthodox community of Germany. Reform Judaism was grounded in freeing Jews from what Rabbi Emil G. Hirsch called, “the tyranny of dogma”. Reform Judaism, forged at Sinai and other historic congregations, recognized the liberty of each individual to make their own religious choices and to chart the course of their own Jewish life. No Rabbi or Talmudic authority would have the capacity to dictate any action, to take from any Jew their essential freedom. This struggle of the Reform Movement to rid ourselves of religious dogma resonates powerfully with the American ideal. It is neither surprise nor coincidence, therefore, that Sinai—and with it the Reform Movement—grew and prospered upon these shores. In proud appreciation for the opportunities and freedoms offered to our community, our congregation has long hung the American flag in our main sanctuary.

America was our home, and we were proud of it. In the 1880s, the Reform Movement rejected any national aspiration for any ingathering of our exiles in our ancestral land; likewise Sinai’s leaders bristled at remarks from our compatriots who questioned our loyalty to the United States because of our association with a people spread across countless countries. With the rise of Zionism in the early 1900s, such a stance became more complicated as Jews escaped the persecution of Europe to build new communities in the old land. At the time, the Reform Movement itself was split on support for a Jewish State; but not Chicago Sinai Congregation. America was our home, not Israel. At least in our leadership, we were somewhere between anti-Zionist and indifferent to the issue. Not even 1948 seemed to change that.

But the 1960s did. Rabbi Sam Karff not only taught and spoke about the importance of Israel to Jewish identity, but he also brought the first groups of our congregants to tour the young nation. Nevertheless, America dominated our identity as a synagogue. When designing our current home, Rabbi Berman intentionally inscribed the quote from Leviticus “Proclaim liberty throughout the land to all the inhabitants thereof,” on the wall right next to where the American flag was set to stand. The biblical words engraved upon America’s liberty bell would reflect down in constant conversation with the Stars and Stripes.

I hardly knew all this history when I was interviewing at Sinai. But I was familiar with it two years ago when a group of thoughtful Sinai members proposed hanging an Israeli flag in the sanctuary. Many of us knew how potentially explosive and divisive any resolution to this question could be. Flags are powerful enough symbols on their own, but they assume even greater import when steeped in over 150 years of congregational history. It would have been easy to ignore the question and sweep the matter under the rug; in fact, there was precedent for doing so in recent years. I am most proud, however, that such was not the course our leadership took. It is not in Sinai’s DNA to avoid difficult discussion. It is our raison d’etre to examine our religious lives and to make important decisions regardless of the difficulty. And that is precisely what our leadership has achieved.

Eighteen months later, after passionate discussion and deep thinking, our Board of Trustees has realized that the Sinai of our 21st Century has a different relationship to Israel from a century ago, and even from 20 years ago when we built our Delaware Place home. Our synagogue’s commitment to intellectual evolution, to wrestling with serious ideas, and to freeing ourselves from all dogmas—including those we might impose on ourselves!—led us to new realizations. First and foremost, we unanimously were proud that re-engagement with the modern State of Israel has become a vibrant part of life at Sinai. In the past few years, we have brought multiple groups to Israel, welcomed varied guests to speak on Israel-related topics, and have heightened our curriculum through all ages to engender meaningful conversations about Israel for all segments of our community. Our leadership was grateful that we have created communal opportunities to learn about and connect with Israel that is rid of any aspect of dogma, any particular political approach. At Sinai, we respect the right of everyone who enters our home to maintain their own personal relationship with Israel on their own terms. That we learn about, program around and travel to Israel is not the least bit contentious. But the symbols of flags were.

Our ultimate decision was guided by this principle: to be a Jewish community in the 21st century is to have some kind of connection to Israel. Otherwise stated, it seems impossible to be thoughtfully Jewish in this day and age without understanding Israel and being able to articulate one’s own perspective on issues connected to Israel. We want Chicago Sinai Congregation to be a place where we inquire about your relationship to Israel, and where we respect all answers, from utter rejection to unquestioning embrace. Since it is neither possible nor advisable to form a Jewish identity in this day and age that does not address the question of Israel, it is our duty as a congregation to help those who walk through our doors to forge meaningful and informed relationships with Israel, relationships based on every person’s autonomy to make their own decision and our communal commitment to be rid of dominating dogmas.

And so we decided, overwhelmingly but not unanimously, to change our approach to flags at Sinai. We knew it was time to bring an Israeli flag for permanent display. Our display of the Israeli flag is neither political endorsement of a particular party nor reason not to critique the country or its government’s policies, with which many congregants disagree. [The same, of course, is true of our American flag.] Furthermore, our display of the Israeli flag in no way diminishes our recognition of the legitimate rights of the Palestinians. Finally, we strongly disagree with efforts of the Israeli rabbinate to limit the definition of who should be considered Jewish. Sinai believes that anyone who shares our beliefs and values is a part of this community. Indeed, as the inscription above our door proclaims, we are a “House of Prayer for All People.” Thus, we were pioneers in performing interfaith weddings in the 1980s and for over three decades have embraced our many interfaith families as cherished members. Our display of an Israeli flag is consistent with this long-standing policy of welcoming interfaith families, Jews of color, and members of the LGBTQ community into full membership in our Sinai family.

Our conversations about the Israeli flag revealed to us not only the incredible symbolic power of flags, but also the truth that these symbols mean different things to different people. Because every individual connects to them in their own way, such powerful signs are even more difficult when placed in sacred spaces. Therefore we decided that these two flags should hang side-by-side outside of our Sanctuary. By removing the American flag from the sanctuary, to stand next to the Israeli flag outside the chapel, we do not intend to signal a diminution of our profound gratitude for the religious freedom and opportunities we have found and continue to enjoy in this country.

Although flags are in obvious ways political symbols of sovereign nations, here at Sinai we hope these two flags represent something deeper than and distinct from politics: we hang both side-by-side as symbols of our identity and our commitments. Our 21st Century Reform Jewish life is inexorably rooted in America, our home, and powerfully linked to Israel, the modern refuge of Jews fleeing persecution from around the world, as well. We encourage you not only to deepen your commitments to America and to Israel, but also to play your role as a part of Sinai’s community to work for the continued improvement of both countries. That work of repairing our world, of tikkun olam, is vital to our mission at Chicago Sinai Congregation, a House of Prayer for All People.

We are also aware that some people cannot see these symbols as we do. Just as there are those who today kneel instead of standing for our American national anthem, there are those who see the Israeli flag in similarly oppressive light. We believe, however, that this will not prevent Sinai from remaining a House of Prayer for All People. You might not have a connection to Israel—you might even have aversion to it—that’s okay. But Israel is part of our communal life. You might not have a connection to Hebrew, and that’s okay. But Hebrew is part of our communal life. You may not particularly love the sound of the organ; that’s okay, but it’s part of life here at Sinai. You might not be motivated to help resettle refugees, or merge schools, or fight for gun control. That’s okay, but those are also parts of life here at 15 West Delaware as well. Contemporary Jewish life and our shared experiences at Sinai are vast and expansive. Israel doesn’t need to be the part you embrace, but it is an important part of the landscape of Jewish life.

You really never know what will happen when you ask a Rabbi a question. But I remain grateful for all the difficult, probing inquiries which put us in greater touch with our current commitments and how we choose to live those commitments. And I look forward to a wonderful High Holy Day season together where we continue to ask such difficult questions of ourselves and our communities, that we might ever grow and improve ourselves and our world.

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