When Rabbi Tzvi Graetz was a little boy in the Israel of the 1970s, he would visit the shuk, or market, with his father every High Holy Day season to buy flags to wave during Simchat Torah, when the giving of the Torah is celebrated.
“It was something we would wait for,” reminisced Graetz, the executive director based in Jerusalem of the World Council of Conservative/Masorti Synagogues. (“Masorti” is the Hebrew name of the Conservative movement.) “The flags had glitter, and I even remember a picture of an apple on top.”
But over the course of Graetz’ lifetime, as Israeli religious life became increasingly dominated by the fervently Orthodox, the flags, produced to appeal to the sensitivities of the Orthodox community, changed until it became virtually impossible to find one that showed women dancing with the Torah. Instead, they depicted only men and boys, or portraits of rabbis.
Graetz decided to change that and, rather than relying on the Orthodox-produced flags, to create his own. The movement designed its own flag, emphasizing the values of inclusion and Zionism to which it aspires, and manufactured 20,000 of them. In the five weeks since they’ve become available for purchase, 16,000 have sold, 10,000 in North America and the rest in Israel and other Conservative communities around the world in Africa, Europe and South America.
The Conservative Synagogue of Riverdale bought 200, Graetz said; Town and Village Synagogue in Manhattan, which is also Conservative, bought 150.
Adapting customs from one stream of Judaism for use in another is common, and sometimes happens almost unconsciously, said Jack Wertheimer, professor of American Jewish history at the Conservative Movement’s Jewish Theological Seminary.
Conservative and Reform synagogues, for example, use the melodies of Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach, while Orthodox synagogues have adapted Reform singer-songwriter Debbie Friedman’s tunes.
“In some cases, it’s done in a very self-conscious fashion,” he said, while in others, “It’s something that’s in the air. People might attend a synagogue of a different flavor, and then [transmit] anecdotal information, or have an informal conversation.”
On the new flag, the dancers’ skin tones vary; there’s a girl in a wheelchair holding a Torah and a woman in a tallit. The Israeli flag is central. Theodor Herzl, considered the founder of modern Zionism, Moses and Miriam look on approvingly.
“We are descendants of Herzl,” Graetz said. “We’re very proud of that legacy … for him to see people fulfilling his vision is something he takes great pride in.”
In North America, it’s too late to order the flags for this year, as Simchat Torah takes place on Oct. 9. But next year, the movement plans to manufacture 40,000.
They’re made of heavy cardboard attached to a stick that, Graetz is careful to point out, is safe for children.