Recently, our sanctuary was used for a performance by an outside organization. Whenever this occurs, we have to move all of the furniture off of the bima, the raised platform. Because all of this movement can cause some logistical challenges, I was asked if we needed to put the US and Israeli flags back for services, or could they be left off. I immediately said that they needed to be in place. The front of the sanctuary would look bare without them.
Flags in the synagogue is not something I had considered before, but the question made me wonder, how and why is it that we have both the American and Israeli flags in our sanctuary like most Reform and Conservative sanctuaries in this country. It turns out that this is a question that has been researched by Gary Zola, a historian at the Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati. He has discovered that the American flag first became a fixture in the patriotic response to the First World War.
While the flag was used in religious, and Jewish, settings before World War I, it didn’t stick. Bimas would be draped for a short period, but then later removed. During the Great War, however, churches and synagogues used to fly service flags, red flags with blue stars representing the men from their communities fighting in the war. While the service flag is not the traditional Stars and Stripes, it helped to make the flag a permanent part of American religious life.
As historian Jenna Weissman Joselit has observed, the flag helped new American Jews express their gratitude for their adopted country. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, that most “Jewish” of American holidays, we are reminded of the uniqueness of our community. Travel around the world and you won’t find a national flag on the bima of the local synagogue. Those Jews may deeply appreciate their home countries too, but not enough to place a national symbol in such a prominent religious place.
Not all American Jewish movements have adopted the flag either. Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the most important Orthodox authorities of the 20th century, opposed flags as secular symbols on the bima. The creation of the state of Israel actually prompted the almost universal adoption of the US flag in American synagogues because those who wanted to display an Israeli flag felt compelled to pair it with that of the home country. There is also a protocol for the display of flags in the United States. The Stars and Stripes must always be the leftmost banner with other emblems to the right, from the perspective of the audience.
As we continue to appreciate the blessings of America, commemorated on Thanksgiving, let us also take a moment to remember our interesting history in this country. For hundreds of years, we have sought to take our place among our neighbors, secure in our patriotism, proud of our heritage, and ready to combine our religious loyalty with our American loyalty.