When Rabbi Serena Eisenberg took over as the Hillel director at Brown University in the fall of 2005, she was surprised there wasn’t an Israeli flag in the group’s building.
Eisenberg thought one should go up. But the issue proved divisive among students.
“I heard various proposals during my time at Brown: a flag, no flag. A flag, and also a Palestinian flag. A flag, but not in the main entryway,” said Benj Kamm, Hillel student president at the time.
Finally, in the fall of 2006, Hillel staff put up the Israeli and American flags, neither of which had flown for years. They did it without approval from students, who at Brown sit on Hillel’s board of trustees.
That didn’t sit well with some. Kamm admits feeling “frustrated and disappointed” that the “decision had been made by fiat.”
Eisenberg admits the flag “can be an important lightning rod for discussion” of the deeper issues of Jewish identity.
Synagogue debate on the issue adds a new dimension: How appropriate is a nationalist symbol in a place of worship? No stream has an official policy on the question. They tend to agree that it’s acceptable to display any flag in the sanctuary but leave the decision to the individual congregation.
Rabbi Dan Freelander, vice president of the Union for Reform Judaism, says it’s “very customary” for a Reform congregation to display the Israeli flag along with the American flag in the sanctuary or building.
But, he notes, the practice waxes and wanes with Israel’s position on the world stage. In times of peace and prosperity, more groups put up a flag; in times of violence, or when a Jewish group disagrees with something Israel is doing, they tend not to display the flag.
That, he said, is as wrong and illogical as disowning your parents when they make you angry.
Congregations have varied practices, providing a microcosm of the greater American Jewish community.
Temple Beth El in Newark, Del., hangs the Israeli and American flags on either side of the bimah. “I say that although we are loyal citizens of the U.S., Israel is our spiritual homeland,” Rabbi David Kaplan explains.
Some, like Congregation Shalom Rav in Austin, Texas, don’t display either flag. Others display both flags, but not on the bimah.
The Jewish Reconstructionist Congregation in Evanston, Ill., took down its Israeli and U.S. flags about five years ago in response to a congregant’s petition to the synagogue board. “He said they were political symbols, and the sanctuary is sacred space,” Rabbi Brant Rosen recalls.
In many synagogues, the question arises only when a special event is planned.
In 2000, a controversy erupted at Congregation Sha’ar Zahav in San Francisco over a memorial for the fifth anniversary of the assassination of Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, which included flying the Israeli flag. In the end the flag was displayed but only after considerable debate.
Congregants sometimes take matters into their own hands. Or Shalom, a Jewish Renewal congregation in San Francisco, meets in a Conservative synagogue that displays the American and Israeli flags in its sanctuary. Or Shalom leaves them in place, but some congregants take them down for their family members’ lifecycle rituals.
Or Shalom member Charlie Varon had the flags removed for his first son’s bar mitzvah, and will do it again in August for his second son’s bar mitzvah. “I don’t want them in my sanctuary,” he said.
Then there are the creative types.
Temple Beth Or in Miami displays the Israeli flag, the American flag and what Rabbi Rebecca Lillian calls “the Planet Earth flag,” which shows a photo of Earth taken from space. The flags hang at every synagogue service and event.